According to the School Health Survey by the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, about 6% of Finnish 8th and 9th graders experience bullying or violence at school at least once a week. One in ten schoolchildren of this age feels lonely quite often or constantly. According to Statistics Finland, there were 564,100 pupils in Finnish comprehensive schools the year before the last. Assuming that the number of pupils is approximately the same at every grade level, the number of 8th and 9th graders in Finland is about 125,333. Six percent of this number means 7,520 students between the ages of 14 and 15 who experience bullying or violence at school weekly. Forms of bullying include hitting, kicking, tearing, pushing, seizing goods or money, threatening, coercing, depriving, naming, ridiculing, isolating, insulting, spreading lies, and bullying in social media.
A few years ago, Harvard Review of Psychiatry published a review article How Well Do We Understand the Long-Term Health Implications of Childhood Bullying?, that looked at the psychological and physiological effects of bullying-induced chronic stress on a child and adolescent. According to the review, bullying has more serious effects on a child and adolescent than parental abuse. This was revealed in a follow-up study of cohort data from two countries published in the Lancet Psychiatry in 2015, which found that the risk factor for mental illness at age 18 was 1.6-3.8-fold, 1.7-fold for depression, 4.9-fold for anxiety, and 1.7-fold for suicide on those bullied than those who had experienced parental abuse. Other follow-up studies have found, among other things, an 18-fold increase in the risk of suicide in bullied men compared to non-bullied peers and a 27-fold risk of a panic disorder in bullied women compared to non-bullied peers. Typical psychosomatic consequences of bullying include difficulty sleeping, headache, poor appetite, impaired quality of life, difficulty breathing, fatigue, and abdominal pain. Their risk is double that of bullied young people compared to non-bullied ones.
Relentless long-term stress triggers a state of allostatic stress in the body of a child and adolescent, a disorder associated with stress in the body that has been shown to increase a wide range of health risks and be associated with mental disorders. Often a bullied young person is unable to seek help in their situation. They can carry the burden of being bullied for decades on their shoulders and it can affect their behaviour as an adult in a wide variety of ways, including a lack of trust, insecurity in social situations, and general anxiety. Being bullied has a holistic effect on a person’s personality, self-esteem, and way of being in social relationships.
I have worked on the psychosocial effects of bullying in EMDR therapy countless times, both with young people and with adults who have experienced bullying in childhood or adolescence. How deep and long-lasting traumatic experiences and their aftermath bullying leaves in the bullied never ceases to shock me. In EMDR therapy, the client is asked to select the worst memories and events to be processed. For most of those bullied, they have to do with the experience of social isolation and mental violence. Physical violence is less often chosen as a target memory to be processed, as apparently it does not usually represent the worst part of the events, although it has almost always occurred in some form. The negative idea of oneself associated with a target memory is almost always “I am bad” or “I am worthless”. It is very rarely “I am in danger”, even though the situation could be dangerous for the bullied in terms of the risk of physical harm. Presumably, the positive cognition that the bullied would like to associate with a target memory is usually “I’m good enough” or “I’m valuable”. However, it will almost never seem real at all before one starts processing the target memory. The emotions generated by the target memory are usually shame, sadness, fear, and sometimes anger. They feel as pressure, pain, shortness of breath and locking in the body and are sometimes activated very strongly during processing. Although events can stretch back decades, subjective disturbance associated with the target memory is usually at least a 7 on a scale of 0 to 10.
My message to those bullied and the professionals dealing with the phenomenon of bullying and school violence is that quick help is available for the experiences of the bullied in the form of EMDR therapy recommended for a treatment that applies to post-traumatic stress disorder. Rapid and effective psychotherapeutic intervention and treatment in a situation of bullying could prevent e.g. the development of a stress-related disorder in the body and help the bullied in developing resources for difficult situations. There are already some EMDR therapists in Finland who specialize in EMDR therapy for children and young people (see the list of therapists www.emdr.fi). Training of school psychologists in the use of the method could also be considered, as this is ultimately a problem that mainly arises at the school and should be effectively addressed by the school. From a young person’s perspective, the benefit of EMDR therapy is also that the young person does not have to tell or describe their experiences in detail. For a young person, this is often difficult and embarrassing because of the shame associated with it. In EMDR therapy, it is sufficient to keep in mind images of events during the mutual stimulation provided by the therapist. From a child and adolescent development perspective, I consider especially important the opportunity offered by EMDR therapy to correct a negative sense of self associated with the bullying experience (e.g., “I’m wrong”) with a more positive and realistic experience of self (e.g., “I’m pretty ok”). This allows for the development of a healthy self-esteem.
Finally, some of my clients point out during the process their unfortunate experience of no one helping them in a bullying situation. The school had known, but no one had intervened. It may have been known at home too, but they hadn’t known how to intervene. The child or young person was left alone. As target memories, these are often the most painful for the bullied. So let’s not leave the bullied alone, never again.