Does Bullying Lead To Depression? A New Survey Demonstrates Just How Significant The Impact Can Be

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For many targets of bullying, the resulting trauma persists long after they've bid a less than fond farewell to school. Sexual abuse, too, can have a pervasive impact on survivors; it might seem self-evident, then, that sexual abuse and bullying can lead to depression. But a new study, published in the journal BMC Public Health, demonstrates just how these traumatic events can manifest in later life, through issues like depression, eating disorders, and addiction.

Abuse and other traumatic events have long been identified as risk factors for depression, as the Mayo Clinic observes. But the study authors, from four institutions in Australia and the U.S., looked closer into the types of bullying and abuse suffered, the duration of the abuse, and at what age it was encountered; they then identified later health issues alongside depression, including binge eating, dependence on smoking, excessive consumption of alcohol.

The researchers surveyed 2,873 people in South Australia, conducting face-to-face interviews of about 30 minutes in length. About 45 per cent of those interviewed were bullied, while over 10 per cent had experienced sexual abuse. Around seven per cent of participants had encountered both. The participants were asked two primary questions: "Have you ever been bullied at school or work?" and "In your lifetime, have you ever experienced any type of sexual abuse?" They were then asked to identify the age when they last experienced the abuse, and how long it lasted.

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The researchers went on to determine whether the participants were dependent on smoking, drank excessive quantities of alcohol, or struggled with binge eating, using pre-existing measures like the Heaviness of Smoking Index to identify harmful behaviours. Each participant was also asked whether they were currently taking antidepressants. Moreover, the researchers measured the respondents' "health-related quality of life," both physical and mental, with a pre-existing questionnaire called the Medical Outcomes Study Short Form.

The findings? Participants who were bullied or sexually abused were up to four times more likely to take antidepressants, with survivors of sexual abuse the most likely to take them. Those who had experienced bullying, sexual abuse, or both were also more likely to report a lower health-related quality of life.

Respondents who were bullied for over two years were twice as likely to be dependent on smoking, as were those who experienced sexual abuse under the age of 10, over the age of 20, or for a duration of over a month. Excessive alcohol consumption occurred more frequently in those who were bullied as a child, or for over two years, while those who were bullied or sexually abused as an adult were more likely to experience binge eating.

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While the study results are undeniably bleak, they serve a vital purpose: they demonstrate just how destructive bullying and sexual abuse are, and how urgently survivors deserve appropriate support. "Strategies that aim to prevent these forms of abuse are important," the study authors concluded. What's more, they wrote, "identifying survivors of both forms of abuse is important to provide support and reduce more severe mental and physical consequences in the future."