Schoolchildren who are bullied or physically assaulted are more likely to have a psychotic experience such as hearing voices, according to research published this month in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
A study involving 1,112 pupils in schools in Cork and Kerry also found that classmates were the biggest offenders when it comes to inflicting physical harm. Of the 10% of students who had been physically attacked in the previous 12 months, 45% had been assaulted by classmates.
On the upside, the incidence of hearing voices reduces significantly if the bullying or physical assaults stop, according to researchers at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), who presented their findings yesterday at the European Society for Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Congress in Dublin.
Prof Mary Cannon, Health Research Board (HRB) clinician scientist and senior investigator with the RCSI’s department of psychiatry, said pupils whose responses indicated a suicide risk were immediately referred to a consultant psychiatrist. She said these students represented a “small percentage, one or two percent”.
Prof Cannon said their findings indicated the best place to intervene to improve a young person’s mental health was in the school environment.
“Our findings show there is a fair amount of trauma being experienced by young people and that most of it occurs in school. What’s needed is a whole school approach to tackling the issue of bullying, as well as teacher training.”
As part of the study, 15-year-old students were given a six-item questionnaire asking if anyone had spread rumours about them or if they had been teased or left out of activities; if they had had money or property taken from them; or if they had been called names, or teased about how they looked. A separate question asked if they had been physically assaulted.
Approximately two out of five of the students had been subjected to some form of bullying in the previous 12 months.
Prof Cannon said their findings were “the first to show there is direct evidence between exposure to childhood trauma and psychotic experience” while also showing that an end to the trauma led to a reduction in hearing voices.
She said they were satisfied the children were genuine when reporting to have heard voices on the basis of a separate study where they had interviewed children who made that claim.
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