Children who face relentless bullying from their peers are at elevated risk of developing psychotic symptoms by the time they reach early adolescence, a British study has revealed.
Previous research has shown that bullying can lead to anxiety, depression and even suicide. But the new study, by researchers at the University of Warwick, is the first to link bullying with psychotic symptoms, which include hallucinations, delusions, and bizarre and paranoid thoughts.
Dieter Wolke, one of the authors of the study, said these early psychotic episodes may act as a trigger for schizophrenia in those who are genetically predisposed to developing the mental disorder.
Essentially, the stress caused by severe and chronic victimization may be enough to push a vulnerable person over the edge, leading to full-blown schizophrenia, Dr. Wolke speculated.
He noted that stress spurs the release of cortisol, a hormone that might alter the developing brain. What's more, being treated badly can have long-lasting effects on the thought processes of an impressionable child.
Further research would be needed to confirm that bullying can be the spark for schizophrenia.
The latest findings, published in Archives of General Psychiatry, are based on an assessment of 6,437 young individuals.
At the ages of 8 and 10, the children were asked if they had been bullied in the past six months. Bullying included threats or acts of physical violence as well as emotional victimization such as being ostracized by a group of other children. Parents and teachers were also quizzed about the extent of bullying.
Then, at the age of 13, the children were assessed for signs of psychotic symptoms.
About 46 per cent of the kids had been victims of bullying to some degree. The children who experienced a great deal of bullying tended to be the ones who were most likely to suffer from psychotic symptoms.
But Dr. Wolke emphasized that the odds of developing such symptoms must be kept in perspective.
"You have an increased risk, but it doesn't mean that most of the children who were bullied developed psychotic symptoms," he said in an interview.
The study showed that up to 18 per cent of those who were severely bullied had some symptoms, he said. By contrast, 4 per cent of those who were not bullied displayed some psychotic-like behaviour, he said.
Nonetheless, bullying is a serious matter with potentially life-altering consequences, he said, adding that schools and parents should adopt strategies to prevent this form of cruel victimization.