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Bullying in childhood increases the risk of psychosis later in life

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Children who are either bullied or bullies themselves are at an increased risk of having psychotic episodes in adulthood, says a new study by the University of Warwick and the University of Bristol. The research was published in the Dec. 17, 2013, issue of “Psychological Medicine.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define psychosis as a “dysregulation of thought processes.” Psychotic episodes cause people to lose touch with reality and suffer from delusions and hallucinations. Some may hear voices or experience paranoia.

“We want to eradicate the myth that bullying at a young age could be viewed as a harmless rite of passage that everyone goes through – it casts a long shadow over a person’s life and can have serious consequences for mental health, ” said Dieter Wolke, a professor at the University of Warwick.

Researchers followed groups of British children from birth to adulthood and found:

  • Some groups exposed to bullying were nearly five times more likely to experience psychotic episodes at age 18
  • Young adults who were bullies in elementary school were four and a half times more likely to experience psychotic episodes by age 18
  • Children who were bullied for brief periods around ages 8 or 10 also had an increased risk of psychotic episodes

“These numbers show exactly how much childhood bullying can impact on psychosis in adult life,” said Wolke. “It strengthens on the evidence base that reducing bullying in childhood could substantially reduce mental health problems. The benefit to society would be huge, but of course, the greatest benefit would be to the individual.”

“Interventions against bullying should start early, in primary school, to prevent long term serious effects on children’s mental health,” said Wolke. “This clearly isn’t something that can wait until secondary school to be resolved; the damage may already have been done.”

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