Smoking and binge eating linked to bullying and sexual abuse

People who have been subjected to bullying or sexual abuse are more likely to smoke, binge eat, use antidepressants and have a lower quality of life, a South Australian study has found.

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Picture: Thomas Ricker

A population-based survey of 2873 adults in South Australia by researchers at the University of Adelaide found that 45 per cent of respondents had been bullied and 10 per cent sexually abused. While 60–70 per cent of these forms of abuse occurred in childhood or adolescence, they were associated with worse outcomes later in life.

The study found that those who suffered bullying and sexual abuse were three times more likely to be binge eaters, four times more likely to use antidepressant and twice as likely to smoke.

If someone had two or more adverse outcomes (smoking dependence, binge eating, antidepressant use, and a lower quality of life) the probability they had suffered bullying and/or sexual abuse ranged between 60–85 per cent.

The study included participants of all ages, urban and rural settings and socioeconomic levels who took part in face-to-face interviews using self-labelling questions to measure the age of onset and duration of bullying and sexual assault and their outcomes during home interviews.

Lead researcher Dr David Gonzalez-Chica from the University of Adelaide’s Medical School said the study results could help doctors identify victims of bullying and sexual abuse through their harmful behaviours.

He said talking about an experience of bullying or sexual abuse in a face-to-face interview was complicated because of the sensitive nature of the questions.

“The study showed that it is feasible to use such kind of short but well-structured questions instead of long questionnaires to explore these issues,” Dr Gonzalez-Chica said.

“If a doctor finds a patient with multiple harmful behaviours — like smoking dependence and binge eating — who is depressed and has a lower quality of life, they should consider exploring whether these patients were victims of bullying and/or sexual abuse, as according to our results it is very likely they suffered from these forms of abuse.

“Identifying survivors of both forms of abuse is important to provide support and reduce more severe mental and physical consequences, such as suicide.”

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