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Victims of Bullying at Greater Risk of Eating Disorders

Guest Blog post written by Jenny Hart

Research suggests that one in six American children between third and twelfth grade are bullied; 500,000 took part in a survey conducted by the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. If this isn’t worrying enough, the findings of another piece of analysis show a very strong link between those who are bullied and those who experience an eating disorder.

The results

A recent UK study of 600 people with an eating disorder found that 90% had been bullied at some point and 78% identified this bullying as having contributed to the development of their eating disorder.  The research carried out by Beat, an eating disorder charity, found that of those bullied, in 40% of cases this had been before the age of ten, indicating that hateful behavior towards someone at a young age may point to why people are experiencing eating disorders sooner in their lives, but the impact of bullying may also have lasting consequences. Of concern was the fact that the figures in this study were far higher – a staggering 67% greater – in comparison to when a similar survey had been conducted two years previously; equally more people were highlighted as having been bullied at a younger age.

Possible connections

Whatever form bullying takes, it is known to have a negative impact on mental health in a number of ways and can certainly knock self-esteem, which is a known factor that can lead to eating disorders. However, some who have suffered at the hands of bullies may use their altered relationship with food as a means to help manage the stress and anxiety associated with the harassment they experience. Eating disorders are often seen as a way of taking control of their lives, which have become so uncertain since they have been experiencing threatening behavior by others. They are also seen as a form of comfort and escape, allowing someone to take their mind off the abuse they have been exposed to.

Recognizing the problem

If schools and employers take reports of bullying seriously, there is more chance of a better outcome for the victims, with them being less likely to suffer mentally and to experience an eating disorder. The anti-bullying policies held by organizations must therefore be effective and used; there is little point these documents sitting on a shelf to gather dust. However, it is important that the signs of bullying are also recognized, as not everyone suffering will come forward – either due to fear or believing that they will not be taken seriously.

Although there are many indicators that someone might be bullied, there are some key outward signs to be aware of.

  • Often they will become increasingly withdrawn, avoiding activities that they used to enjoy such as socializing with friends or taking part in a sport or music group.
  • They may show signs of anxiety, report difficulty in sleeping or show changes in behavior, such as becoming more aggressive towards friends and family or displaying destructive traits such as running away.
  • Their mood is also likely to turn, with unhappiness a common sign; if the bullying progresses, this may lead to depression.
  • Victims of bullying can also perform less well in their school or college work, or during the working day if they have a job; their mind may well be elsewhere, they are less motivated due to low mood and have lost interest in attaining highly.  This may especially be the case if they are bullied for their successes. Increased frequency of absence from school and work may also be seen.
  • Those at school and college may lose valuables and if bullying is physical, they may have unexplainable cuts and bruises – though this could also be a sign of self-harm, another form of behavior used to manage the situation.
  • Appetite may be reduced or they may eat for comfort; this could be a sign that an eating disorder is brewing.

Many of our clients at Castlewood Treatment Center share that they were the victims of bullying in childhood and that this negatively affected their self image and body image. While we do not believe that bullying causes eating disorders it is a factor in their development as well as the maintenance and perpetuation of negative self esteem.

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