Bullying Victims Vulnerable to Mental Health Problems Later

by Staff Writer
February 15, 2024 at 9:05 AM UTC

The impact of bullying on mental health underscores the urgency for effective intervention strategies to mitigate long-term consequences.

Clinical relevance: The impact of bullying on mental health underscores the urgency for effective intervention strategies to mitigate long-term consequences.

  • One in five children at school and one in six online, endure bullying.
  • A new study reveals a connection between bullying, interpersonal distrust, and subsequent mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.
  • Intervention strategies, particularly within schools and social support groups, are crucial in mitigating the long-term effects of bullying.

In a culture that seems to accept bullying as a fact of life, the prevalence of bullying is staggering.

Bullying, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines it, is “any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths, who are not siblings or current dating partners, that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance, and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.”

Researchers have studied – and debated – the effects of bullying for decades. But now it appears that the science points to damage that lingers long after the physical wounds heal.

A new study, a joint project produced by UCLA Health and the University of Glasgow, found that younger teens whose trust is shattered by childhood bullying are significantly more likely to develop notable mental health issues in adulthood.

Bullying Evolves with Technology

Bullying remains all too common. The latest CDC numbers suggest that roughly one in five children endure bullying on school grounds. And it continues after the school day ends, with one in six children putting up with online harassment.

But the Pew Research Center insists it’s worse than that, reporting that nearly half – 49 percent – of U.S. teens endure online threats and taunts. Unsurprisingly, teenage girls, black children, and LGBTQ kids suffer a disproportionate amount of the harassment. 

Earlier studies have already revealed the ties between bullying and mental and behavioral health issues among kids. Research has highlighted its influence on issues such as alcohol and drug abuse, depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts.

Bullying Sows Distrust

But this new research, which appears in the latest issue of the journal Nature Mental Health, centers on the link between “peer bullying, interpersonal distrust, and the subsequent development of mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, and anger.”

Researchers mined data from 10,000 U.K. children gathered from nearly 20 years as part of the Millennium Cohort Study. Subsequently, the researchers found that adolescents bullied as young as 11 develop greater interpersonal distrust by age 14. Worse, they were about “3.5 times more likely to experience clinically significant mental health problems at age 17.”

“There are few public health topics more important than youth mental health right now,” George Slavich, MD, director of UCLA Health’s Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research said in a press release. “In order to help teens reach their fullest potential, we need to invest in research that identifies risk factors for poor health and that translates this knowledge into prevention programs that can improve lifelong health and resilience.”

Hope for Intervention

Schools and social support groups can apply the study results to counter the damage. When patients develop clinically significant mental health problems during their teens it puts them in harm’s way indefinitely. They remain at greater risk of mental and physical health issues for the rest of their lives.

But it’s not just interpersonal distrust that poses a lifelong wellness threat. The study shows that diet, sleep, and physical activity also exposed a connection with bullying and subsequent mental health problems.

“What these data suggest is that we really need school-based programs that help foster a sense of interpersonal trust at the level of the classroom and school,” Slavich concluded. “One way to do that would be to develop evidence-based programs that are especially focused on the transition to high school and college, and that frame school as an opportunity to develop close, long-lasting relationships.”

Further Reading

Bullying Among Children With Mental, Emotional, Developmental, or Behavioral Problems

Cyberbullying and Adolescent Mental Health

Predictors of Poor Mental Health in Adolescents

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