When children are bullied, they are more likely to fall into a deep depression and consider suicide as a way out of their torment than children who are not bullied. That’s not surprising considering the long-term effect being bullied can have on a child. Oftentimes, children who are depressed are prescribed medications to take, but a new study suggests that exercise may be the key to improving bullied children’s outlook and mental health.
"I was surprised that it was that significant and that positive effects of exercise extended to kids actually trying to harm themselves," said lead author Jeremy Sibold, associate professor and chair of the Department Rehabilitation and Movement Science. "Even if one kid is protected because we got them involved in an after-school activity or in a physical education program it's worth it."
Previous research has shown bullied children are at a greater risk for sadness, poor academic performance, low self-esteem, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse as well as depression.
The study used data from the CDC's National Youth Risk Behavior Survey of 13,583 high school students, researchers at the University of Vermont found that being physically active four or more days per week resulted in a 23 percent reduction in suicidal ideation and attempts in bullied students.
Nationwide nearly 20 percent of students reported being bullied on school property.
Thirty percent of the students in the study reported feeling sad for two or more weeks in the previous year while more than 22 percent reported suicidal ideation and 8.2 percent reported actual suicidal attempts during the same time period. Bullied students were twice as likely to report sadness, and three times as likely to report suicidal thoughts or attempts when compared to peers who were not bullied.
Researchers found that exercise, four or more days a week, had a positive influence on reducing suicidal thoughts and attempts by 23 percent.
Sibold’s study comes at a time when 44 percent of the nation’s school administrators have cut large amounts of time from physical education, recess and arts’ programs to focus more on reading and mathematics since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, according to a report by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.
"It's scary and frustrating that exercise isn't more ubiquitous and that we don't encourage it more in schools," says Sibold. "Instead, some kids are put on medication and told 'good luck.' If exercise reduces sadness, suicide ideation, and suicide attempts, then why in the world are we cutting physical education programs and making it harder for students to make athletic teams at such a critical age?"
Sibold and the study’s co-authors say they hope their report increases the consideration of exercise programs as part of the public health approach to reduce suicidal behavior in all adolescents.
"Considering the often catastrophic and long lasting consequences of bullying in school-aged children, novel, accessible interventions for victims of such conduct are sorely needed," they conclude.
The study was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.