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People who have experienced bullying or sexual abuse are more likely to have a lower quality of life and exhibit harmful behaviours including smoking and binge eating, according to South Australian research.

A University of Adelaide study of 3,000 South Australians found those who had ever suffered bullying or sexual abuse had a lower quality of life similar to those living with chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, depression or severe anxiety.

Those who suffered bullying and sexual abuse were three times more likely to be binge eaters, four times more likely to use antidepressants and twice as likely to smoke.

“Sexual abuse and bullying were related to harmful behaviours like smoking dependence and binge eating, antidepressant use and reduced quality of life,” lead researcher of University of Adelaide’s Medical School Dr David Gonzalez-Chica said.

The study included participants of all ages, urban and rural settings and socioeconomic levels living in South Australia.

While 60-70% of abuse occurred in childhood or adolescence, they were associated with worse outcomes later in life, the study found.

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%.

The study findings had implications for health professionals, Dr Gonzalez-Chica said.

“In Australia almost half of all adults have experienced bullying and 10% have experienced some form of sexual abuse, and these experiences have had long-term effects on harmful behaviours, depression and quality of life.”

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, Dr Gonzalez-Chica said.

“The study showed that it was feasible to use short but well-structured questions instead of long questionnaires to explore these issues.

“This is particularly relevant for medical appointments where there is limited time for exploring so many different outcomes.

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

The study was published in BMC Public Health.