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Study: Bullying victims at higher risk of self-harm

Friday April 27, 2012
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Bullied children are up to three times more likely to harm themselves up to the age of 12, according to a study.

Researchers carried out a study on more than 1,000 pairs of twins at ages 5, 7, 10 and 12. The children, all of whom were born in 1994-95 in England and Wales, were assessed for risk of self-harm in the six months before their 12th birthday. Self-harm data was available for 2,141 children.

Of the children, 237 were victims of frequent bullying, and 18 (8%) of those had engaged in self harm. Of the 1,904 who did not report having been bullied, 44 (2 %) had self-harmed.

Victimization is associated with behavioral problems during adolescence, but few studies have tested the assumption that exposure to bullying increases the likelihood that a child will self-harm, the researchers said. The authors hope their study will help to identify those at greatest risk of self-harm.

The authors found that several factors increased the risk of self-harm among children who were bullied, including a family history of self-harm, maltreatment and behavioral and emotional problems. Although the likelihood was slightly higher for girls, the association was evident among both sexes.

Bullying was defined as when another child says mean or hurtful things, completely ignores or excludes the victim, hits, kicks or shoves the victim, tells lies or spreads rumors and/or does other hurtful things, all on a frequent basis. Examples of self-harm included cutting and biting arms, pulling out clumps of hair, banging head against walls and attempted suicides by strangulation.

The authors, with King’s College London, wrote that although "more effective programs to prevent bullying … are required," efforts also should be geared toward helping children cope with emotional distress that may arise from bullying. The effectiveness of coping strategies needs to be investigated.

In conclusion, the authors wrote, bullying during early years can have damaging consequences by adolescence, especially if children also are exposed to family adversity or have mental-health difficulties. The authors wrote that schools and healthcare professionals should aim to further "reduce bullying and introduce self-harm risk-reduction programs" to prevent bullied children from hurting themselves later in life.

The study appeared April 26 on the website of the British Medical Journal. To read it, visit http://bit.ly/K5jI75.

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