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Bullying affects kids' mental health

A study says that bullying at school may lead to depression and other mental health problems in kids' lives.

health and fitness Updated: Apr 14, 2007 19:19 IST

A study has found that bullying at school affects majority of elementary students, and may lead to high levels of depression and other mental health problems throughout kids' lives.

The study was conducted at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital and the Stanford University School of Medicine. The lead author of the study was child psychiatrist Tom Tarshis, MD, and it was co-authored by Lynne Huffman, MD, associate professor of pediatrics and of psychiatry at the School of Medicine.

As part of the study, researchers developed a simple five-minute questionnaire to identify kids at risk and to measure the success of interventions aimed at reducing bullying in schools and surveyed 270 children in grades three through six in two schools in California and one in Arizona to determine if the 22-item questionnaire yielded statistically accurate results. Students were scored based on their responses - never, sometimes or often - to such statements

The researchers compared the results to those of other, more complicated surveys intended to identify bullies and victims. They also administered their survey twice to 175 of the students to determine if the results were consistent over time. They found that the responses were highly reliable, and the survey was easily understood and completed by even the youngest students in the sample.

"When I first started to study this subject, there was no real questionnaire that had been tested. We couldn't take the next step until we had a tool that we knew worked," Tarshis said.

Researchers found that 90 percent of elementary students have been bullied by their peers and nearly 60 percent children surveyed in the preliminary study participated in some type of bullying themselves in the past year.

Although the classic definition of bullying brings to mind fistfights in the schoolyard, other more subtle forms of torment also were surveyed.

The survey explored two forms of bullying: direct, such as threatening physical harm, and indirect, such as excluding someone or spreading rumours.

"It was a little distressing how prevalent the problem is even in the middle- to upper-middle-class schools we surveyed," Tarshis said.

"We found it particularly interesting that these indications of victimization and bullying are apparent at very young ages. Our hope is that this questionnaire will be utilized by teachers, pediatricians and even child psychiatrists to identify those children needing early and direct intervention," Huffman said.

"We know that both bullies and victims tend to suffer higher levels of depression and other mental health problems throughout their lives. We need to change the perception that bullying at school is a part of life and that victims just need to toughen up," Tarshis said.

Previous research has shown that, without intervention, bullying behaviour persists over time: a child who is a bully in kindergarten is often a bully in elementary school, high school and beyond and may suffer from depression.

Efforts to stop school bullying have been gathering steam for several years. Those most likely to be effective, promote an attitude change from the principal to the recess monitors to the parents. They range from presentations to entire schools to discussions with individual students about how to respond when they are bullied or when they see someone bullying another student.

"Positive peer pressure is an important component of effective intervention. When uninvolved students step up and let the perpetrator know that their behaviour is not acceptable, it's a powerful message," Tarshis said.

The findings of the research were published in the April issue of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.