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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Bullied children ‘four times more likely to develop psychosis’

Embargoed until 05 June 2009

Children who are bullied at school are up to four times more likely than their peers to develop psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations, delusions and paranoia – and the more severe the bullying the more severe the symptoms.

Professor Dieter Wolke, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Warwick Medical School, told the Annual Meeting of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Liverpool, that around 5 per cent of the general population displayed psychotic-like symptoms – and the vast majority were likely to have been bullied at school.

He told Annual Meeting delegates that bullying in school can be divided into two types: overt bullying, including punching, kicking and physical intimidation; and relational bullying, such as spreading rumours and cyber-bullying which can lead to the victim being ostracised.

Children who experience psychotic symptoms are 16 times more likely to develop full-blown psychosis later in their lives.

Professor Wolke and colleagues analysed data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. The long-term study has followed total of 6,437 expectant mothers and their partners since 1991. The parents, and their children, are followed up annually using a range of physical and psychological assessments.

Professor Wolke examined the interviews conducted with the parents and children when the children had reached the age of 13. He found that factors such as a family history of mental health problems, IQ levels, previous psychiatric problems or poor housing had little or no bearing on whether a child went on to develop psychotic symptoms.

However, if a child was bullied at primary school, he or she was four times more likely to develop psychotic symptoms. They were also twice as likely to go on to be bullied at secondary school.

Professor Wolke said: “We have for the first time show that the bullying has occurred before the psychotic symptoms developed. The more severe the victimisation, the higher the likelihood of having psychotic symptoms. If you are victim of bullying you have twice the risk of psychotic symptoms. But if you are bullied over a long time, your risk quadruples, and if you experience both overt and relational bullying your risk increases 4.6 times. There is a no higher predictor of psychosis than bullying.”

Children with few friends were more likely to be bullied, because other children were not there to defend them, said Professor Wolke. Being continually bullied could lead to changes in the young brain as a result of overreaction to stress and continual increased in the release of the stress hormone cortisol.

Prof Wolke concluded that having friendships and good relationships with classmates plays a vital role in children’s mental health and well-being.

For further information, please contact:
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Claire McLoughlin
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Annual Meeting of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, BT Convention Centre, Liverpool, 2 -5 June 2009


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