According to new research published this week in Lancet children who are bullied are at greater risk of mental health problems in later life than those who are maltreated by adults. The researchers used data from two longitudinal studies in UK and the US where they had collected data for maltreatment by parents between ages of eight weeks and 8.6 years and data for being bullied at 8, 10 and 13 years. They found that children who were bullied and maltreated were at increased risk for overall mental health problems compared with children who did not experience these. Children who were bullied by peers only were more likely than children who were maltreated only to have mental health problems. Being bullied by peers in childhood had generally worse long-term adverse effects on young adults’ mental health.

 After reading this article I got curious to find out what the situation was for school going children in India. Child mental health is still in its infancy in India and I was unable to come across much data. However there was an article “Bully proof your child” published in The Times of India in April 2013. Times reported about a survey conducted in 150 schools in Mumbai and Thane by Parents Teachers Association United Forum (PTAUF), which found that 70 percent of students experienced bullying at school, but only 20 to 40 percent reported it. Interestingly 70 percent even admitted to bullying being their pastime. This is not surprising in the context of media portraying bullies as heroes in many movies. If this was the case in Mumbai, it is highly likely that bullying is equally prevalent in other cities and in rural areas.

 Bullying is generally understood as the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, or aggressively dominate others (Wikipedia). In general bullying at school level consists of repeated emotional, verbal or physical abuse. Children generally get bullied based on background, gender, physical disability or physical appearance. Kids who are overweight, who appear weaker, are quieter or different are the most vulnerable. Such kids can get harassed, called names for months and even beaten up. This kind of situation happens even at college level. I once met a young girl who was from a very poor background. She was the first person to join engineering in her entire family and secured a seat in a very well known institute. She presented with severe headache, unable to concentrate in her studies and depressed. On exploring with her, it was evident the some of the other girls in the hostel were commenting about her level of English, about the fact that she got the seat only because of reservation etc. This caused considerable stress for her resulting in significant mental health issues.

 Victims of bullying generally suffer in silence and they don’t bring it to the notice of parents or teachers because of crippling fear. Many believe that parents or teachers will not be able to help. Sometimes kids give up sporting or other activities to avoid being bullied. Parents should be aware of such issues and should be concerned if their child is getting withdrawn and avoiding going to school. In general our parents tend to blame their children if something goes wrong at school. If a child says another boy pushed him at school immediately parents tend to say, “what did you do for him to push you?” Such style of communication is very unhelpful to say the least. It prevents further communication from the child and missed opportunity to connect and help them.

 Bullying is one of the most prevalent social problems and it leaves a lasting impact on the individual’s mental health not only in the present but also in the future as the Lancet study shows. Girls and boys fall victim to bullying equally. Bullies in general come from backgrounds where they have witnessed violence. Parents should get concerned if there is any change in the child’s personality such as becoming quiet, getting angry, talking crying and urinating in sleep and withdrawing from favourite activities.

 Parents can help by being available for their children to talk to them freely in an open and non-judgmental manner. Parents should be their child’s advocate and be in regular communication with the school. Parents should take their role of parenting one step above from just focusing on academics to focusing on the emotional well being of the school going child.

 Dr K Porpavai