The Gold Exchange

Musings about psychiatry and philosophy

Little-Known Danger of Bullying... (As If We Needed More)

Kids who are bullied are at greater risk for later psychosis.

Hey Joel,

Just listened to a disturbing and disheartening report on the CBC about an eleven-year-old boy in Newfoundland who has been bullied so severely that the school is apparently going to hire some sort of security for him. I know that bullying is hardly news, but I like to think that it’s better here in Canada than in the US. And the fact that Newfoundlanders are some of the gentlest people I’ve ever met makes this bit of cruelty particularly discouraging. Even in the kindest, safest corners of civilization, it seems, there are a few kids who get a kick out of tormenting the child who doesn’t belong.

Naturally, I’ve been wondering whether it would make a difference if more people knew about the data on bullying and psychosis. Even though bullying is finally being taken seriously as an injustice and a mental health problem, my sense is that most people still don’t realize that bullying is related to psychotic symptoms in people without a diagnosis of a psychotic illness and that it is thought to be a determinant of full-blown psychosis, including schizophrenia. Do you think it would make a practical difference to the way bullying is handled if more people knew that kids could be “driven mad” by it?

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Ian

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Hey Ian

Well, I would certainly hope so. Suicide-prevention of kids who are bullied has made progress (though not enough with respect to cyber-bullying, in my opinion). That bullying increases the risk of developing psychotic symptoms, like hallucinations and delusions, is well established, but most mental health practitioners don’t know the science. It just doesn’t get enough play even in professional exchanges. Still, it’s poor practice. The risk of psychosis is about double in victims of bullying (roughly the same increased risk associated with frequent use of pot), but a study conducted this year by British psychologists found the risk of late psychosis for bullied kids is four-and-a-half times than the risk of kids who aren’t! Even bullies themselves are at higher risk.

And even if the powers-that-be may not be particularly interested in the sheer pain people with psychosis experience (though, thankfully, many do), they would be wise to look at the bottom line. Your old stomping ground, Australia, found that psychosis costs the government $3.5 billion and Australian society almost $5 billion. This in a country with a population less than a tenth of that of the US! And what about our friends in the heath insurance racket, uh, I mean industry. They are footing the bill, in part, for the $18+ billion spent on antipsychotic medications. If bullying accounts for even a small uptick in the number of people who develop psychosis, you’d think both government and private industry would be tripping over each other to throw money at the problem. And more money means more research grants devoted to all of the health consequences of bullying. It could also be spent on programs raising awareness and prevention programs. It’s cheaper to prevent bullying (and the psychosis it brings with it) now, than to treat it later.

Then again, we could simply continue to ignore the issue. It’s dumb, but it wouldn’t be the first time. Talk soon.

Joel

Joel Gold, M.D., is a Clinical Associate Professor at the NYU School of Medicine. His brother, Ian Gold, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at McGill University.

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