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Childhood bullying linked to mental health issues in adolescence

Childhood bullying linked to mental health issues in adolescence

Children who experience bullying at a young age are at a much higher risk of developing significant mental health issues by age 17, a new study has found.

The research is the first to link peer bullying and the development of interpersonal distrust with later mental health conditions.

Researchers at the University of Glasgow and UCLA Health in the US found that children who are bullied at age 11 become more distrusting of others by age 14 and, at 17, are 3.5 more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, hyperactivity and anger.

The findings, published in Nature Mental Health, could help provide evidence based interventions to counter the negative mental health impacts of bullying.

Children’s mental wellbeing is a growing health concern. Recent studies by the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention found that 44.2 per cent of sampled high school students in the U.S. reported being depressed for at least two weeks in 2021.

The statistics are similarly concerning in the UK, with NHS Digital reporting that 18.0 per cent of children aged 7 to 16 years had a probable mental disorder in 2022. Clinically significant mental health issues which develop during teenage years and remain unaddressed can have a significant effect on an individual for the rest of their lifetime.

The researchers analysed data from 10,000 children in the United Kingdom who were studied for nearly two decades as part of the Millennium Cohort Study. The data was used to test a theory known as ‘Social Safety Theory’, which predicts that socially threatening experiences, such as bullying, degrade an individual’s mental health by fostering the belief that others cannot be trusted and that the world is a dangerous and threatening place. By examining children who had been bullied at an earlier age, the researchers were able to investigate the link between bullying, mistrust and mental health issues.

Children who were bullied at age 11 were found to have developed greater interpersonal trust at age 14 and, by age 17, were 3.5 times more likely to suffer from mental health problems.

Dr George Slavich, a senior author on the paper from UCLA Health, said: ‘There are few public health topics more important than youth mental health. 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.’

In addition to interpersonal distrust, the authors examined whether diet, sleep or physical activity also linked peer bullying with subsequent mental health problems. However, it was only interpersonal distrust that was found to relate bullying to a greater risk of mental health problems at age 17.

Dr Dimitris Tsomokos, from the University of Glasgow, said: ‘Parents, teachers and researchers have known for a while that a sense of belonging in school and communities is crucial for children and adolescents, both in terms of academic performance and overall wellbeing.’

He added: ‘Our work provides evidence that a key reason for the breakdown of belonging is distrust, which develops over time and settles in, in the form of negative social safety schemas. Distrust can emerge because of earlier experiences of bullying or due to other reasons, breaks down the sense of belonging, and degrades mental health.’


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