Doctors may be best placed to identify children who are being bullied at school, writes Susan Young.
According to new research by the schools health education unit at Exeter University, more than half the secondary pupils surveyed had visited their doctor at least once in the past three months, and the most recent visitors - and probably the most frequent - included the highest percentages of those who were afraid of being bullied.
Forty per cent of the girls and 33 per cent of the boys who saw their doctors in the previous week were affected by bullying. The SHEU report, Bully Off, says that the children most afraid of going to school were also the most likely to be visiting their doctors - but were unlikely to make these worries the subject of their appointment, although they would be seeking some kind of support.
John Balding, director of the SHEU, commented: "No one has ever seen this before. Does the doctor ever think to ask about life at school? They might find they open up the flood-gates."
Bullied children appear to worry more about health as a whole. They are more likely to take painkillers or cold remedies than classmates, and far more likely to be treating skin problems, although this may be linked with self-esteem.
Bizarrely, SHEU also claims that there is a statistically significant link between children afraid of going to school and not knowing whether or not they have eczema. This, says the report, raises more questions than answers. Do the respondents not know what eczema is but are too shy to ask? Do they know, but worry mistakenly that they have it?
They are also more inclined to report a night-time cough - which, the report suggests, may indicate disturbed sleep associated with worry and anxiety rather than ill-health.
Moreover, the tiny group of girls who say they want to gain weight appear to suffer disproportionately from fear of bullying. Perhaps unsurprisingly, tall children are less likely to suffer than shorter ones.
The health worries of bullied children are part of a unique profile built up by the SHEU by checking the answers of those who admitted fear of school against answers to other questions.
The report says: "People often refer to the 'bullying type' but, without those who go in fear of being bullied, the 'bullying type' would be frustrated. This report provides a profile of the 'fear-of- being-bullied' type. Perhaps, in tackling the problem, this is the group most in need of attention."
Some correlations, such as those with low self-esteem and being far less satisfied with life, are fairly easy to explain. For instance, children who can confide in both parents are less worried about bullying, as are those who feel more in control or believe they are fitter. It also helps to be a younger child, perhaps because of protection by an older sibling.
Other findings are inexplicable, such as the discovery that children afraid of bullying are likely to have best friends who smoke or live in families which do so. The Exeter research says: "These remarkable associations were not foreseen, and we find difficulty in explaining them. Is a best friend that smokes likely to bully you?" Moreover, the study found that children who believed that cigarette advertising influenced young people to start smoking were also likely to be more afraid of being bullied themselves.
And, while the pupils who were most at ease when meeting the opposite sex were least likely to worry about bullying, those with a steady boyfriend or girlfriend were more likely to suffer. Oddly, those reporting the least fear of bullying were those who had previously had partners.
The report says: "At this age, boys and girls who identify a current partner may be more vulnerable to excessive teasing and ridicule. This would make them less likely to be 'one of the crowd' or a confident mixer. Some of the ones that have never had a partner might fall into the loner category for different reasons."