Childhood bullying inflicts the same long-term psychological trauma on girls as severe physical or sexual abuse, and its detrimental effects may linger for years, a new study suggests.
The study, which involved 480 college freshmen through seniors, suggests that the negative effects of bullying may negatively affect victims’ mental health well into young adulthood.
Participants in the study by Dorothy Espelage at University of Illinois in the US were surveyed about their exposure to a variety of traumatic experiences – including bullying, cyberbullying and crimes such as robbery, sexual assault, and domestic and community violence – from birth through age 17.
Students also reported on their psychological functioning and symptoms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The students who experienced bullying as children reported significantly greater levels of mental health problems than their peers, according to the study.
Experiencing bullying was the strongest predictor of PTSD symptoms among the college students who participated in the survey, surpassing other types of trauma such as exposure to community violence or being abused or neglected by adults, Espelage found.
Females in particular struggled with the emotional damage inflicted by bullying, reporting significantly greater levels of depression, anxiety and PTSD than their male peers.
“Bullying victimisation significantly predicted students’ current levels of depression and anxiety – over and above other childhood victimisation experiences,” Espelage said.
“This research suggests that college students’ psychological distress may be connected in part to their perceptions of past childhood bullying victimisation experiences,” she said.
Students who experienced one interpersonal trauma were at the greatest risk of being victimised in other ways and of developing PTSD, researchers said.
They suggested that practitioners in college mental health centres need to be aware that students who request psychological help are likely to have experienced multiple forms of trauma that need to be assessed.
Practitioners should routinely collect information about the various types of trauma students may have experienced to identify those people at greatest risk of experiencing PTSD, the researchers said.
The study was published in the journal Social Psychology of Education.