I thought that I remembered every tiny detail about anybody who ever tormented me at school, until one of them popped up online recently, still banging on about my wrong accent and my stupid hair. She’d seen me on the BBC, she said, and I hadn’t changed a bit since she first took against me in Year 10. I was surprised. I’ve not only changed my hair colour and aged 25 years, but I no longer hide in corners reading books to escape. Instead, I talk about books on national television. This person, on the other hand, appeared not to have moved on at all. I am not sorry to say that I couldn’t remember a thing about her.
I was genuinely shocked, therefore, when I heard the results of a new report from the Institute of Psychiatry, which studied 7,771 people over 40 years and found that those who were bullied at school were worse off as adults. People who had been bullied as children had poorer physical and mental health, lower levels of employment and life satisfaction, and increased risk of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. “The impact of bullying is persistent and pervasive, with … consequences lasting well into adulthood,” said the report’s author.
Bullying at any age is hard to get over. It may not leave physical scars – shoving, hair-pulling, taunting, threatening and humiliation don’t – but the psychological damage can be immense. It’s easy to be persuaded that you must deserve it. But interestingly, the IoP study found that: “The harmful effect of bullying remained even when other factors, including childhood IQ, emotional and behavioural problems, parents’ socio-economic status and low parental involvement, were taken into account.” In other words, the bullies don’t just spot life’s losers and give them a hard time; they can actually create a loser out of almost anyone. As it said in one of the novels that I read and reread as I hid from my daily spit bomb: “Continual dropping will wear away a stone – nay, a diamond.”
I was one of the lucky ones, and succeeded partly to spite my bullies. As another author put it: a happy life is the best revenge. But I had the support of two brilliant parents and a handful of teachers who made school tolerable by helping me to see a life beyond it. Others don’t have that. “Forty years is a long time,” says the report, “so there will no doubt be additional experiences during the course of these young people’s lives which may either protect them against the effects of bullying, or make things worse. Our next step is to investigate what these are.”
That next investigation will be the important one. Until it is published, anyone being bullied must only selectively believe the results of this current study, ignore its frightening conclusion and take it from one who knows: no, being bullied is not your fault; yes, it is bloody awful; but, no, it need not ruin the rest of your life, too.