FRIDAY, May 31, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Children who are bullied in elementary school are almost five times more likely to engage in self-harm by the time they are teenagers, according to a new study.
Based on their findings, the British researchers behind the study concluded that no form of bullying -- from name-calling to physical abuse -- should be viewed as a harmless rite of passage.
Doctors should routinely ask children if they have been the victim of a bully, the researchers said.
"The importance of this early intervention should not be understated," study co-author Dieter Wolke, a professor at the University of Warwick, said in a school news release. "If we were able to eliminate bullying, while other exposures remained constant, there would be a potential to prevent 20 percent of all self-harm cases."
The researchers examined information on nearly 5,000 children who participated in a study based at the University of Bristol. Children were evaluated to determine if they had been bullied between the ages of 7 and 10. Years later, when the children were 16 or 17, they were asked if they had engaged in self-harm.
The study found that 16.5 percent of teens had engaged in self-harm in the previous year. Although kids who deliberately hurt themselves may be trying to relieve tension or internalize their distress, the study found that nearly 27 percent of those who hurt themselves felt like they "wanted to die."
After taking into account other factors, such as domestic violence, parenting styles or poor family life, the findings still demonstrated a clear link between being bullied at a young age and self-harm as a teen. Bullying, the researchers said, may increase children's risk for depression or worsen the negative effects of a difficult family situation.
Girls were more likely to develop symptoms of depression and engage in self-harm.
Although the study tied being bullied at a young age to higher risk of self-harming as a teen, it did not establish a cause-and-effect relationship.
"Many children suffer in silence and never speak out about being bullied," Wolke said. "While bullying also increases the risk of depression, many adolescents in our study self-harmed without being depressed, so it is important that when children or adolescents show signs of self-harm or indications of non-specific symptoms -- such as recurrent headaches, stomachaches and avoidance to go to school -- we consider bullying as a possible cause and provide them with support."
The study was published in the June issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
The American Psychological Association provides additional information on bullying.