Childhood bullying can cause college students long-lasting psychological distress, according to a new study.
For female students, peer victimization appears to inflict the same long-term distress associated with severe childhood physical or sexual abuse.
Researchers at the University of Illinois surveyed more than 480 undergraduate students—two thirds of whom were women—about their childhood bullying experiences and current psychological health.
“Typically when we talk about bullying victimization, we think of kids in elementary school (or) middle school,” said Dorothy Espelage, lead author of the study and former educational psychology professor at U of I. She’s now a professor of psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville and says the study is one of the first to ask college students to reflect upon their childhood bullying experiences.
“There’s been no initiative at the college center or the mental health center level with college students to query about peer victimization,” she added. “It may come up if you have a therapist that’s Freudian and really believes that childhood experiences shape their world. … It’s not necessarily in the training to assess for bullying or peer victimization.”
While screening is not routine, Espelage says one of her students working in the university counseling center, Sarah Mebane, noticed students who were having issues adjusting to campus reported peer victimization as a child.
“She just started to ask (students) about their childhood experiences, bullying or how their peer relations were,” Espelage said. “She started to notice, from a clinical standpoint, that there were a lot of college kids coming to the counseling center because they were having adjustment issues.”
Curious about the association between childhood bullying victimization and college students’ current levels of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress symptoms, Mebane designed the retrospective study for her dissertation, Espelage said.
“We’re pretty much talking about clinical levels of depression, anxiety and PTSD.”
Controlling for other traumatic childhood experiences, such as physical abuse, “the strongest predictor for depression, anxiety and PTSD (in college students) … was victimization by peers,” Espelage said. “To be honest, we were shocked by the results.”
“It’s not as if we’re just getting to things like you might just have a bad day or a bad mood,” she added. “We’re pretty much talking about clinical levels of depression, anxiety and PTSD.”
The correlation between childhood victimization and post-traumatic stress symptoms was the most pronounced. “If you have a person coming in to the counseling center presenting with PTSD symptoms, 20 percent of that can be explained by them being victimized by their peers’ bullying,” Espelage said.
Childhood victimization was not as “potent” of a predictor for college students’ anxiety and depression, meaning there could be other reasons for students’ symptoms, she added.
Results from the study also found childhood bullying victimization predicted higher levels of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress symptoms in female students.
Women tend to report “mental health symptoms more than boys,” Espelage said. Men who do report depression manifest it differently than women. “You’ll see depressed boys on college campuses drinking heavily and getting into fights,” she added.
While the study can’t establish causation, “it makes a lot of sense to look at past relationships to understand how kids are going to integrate into new peer relationships,” Espelage said.
In light of these findings, university counseling centers should ask students about “their childhood experiences among their peer group,” at the very least.
Follow Kristen Thometz on Twitter: @kristenthometz
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