Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health matters, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 (or 800-273-8255) to connect with a trained counselor or visit the NSPL site.
Every generation has tales of bullying, but perhaps today’s adults are not as familiar with what it means now for a kid to be bullied.
Physical bullying — like confrontations involving hitting or shoving — actually showed very little association with a risk for mental distress, according to a new study.
“For adults doing this research, you kind of assume that bullying consists of being stuffed in a locker and beaten up on the playground,” said lead study author John Rovers, professor and John R. Ellis Distinguished Chair in Pharmacy Practice at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. “We found out that that really has remarkably little effect.”
Researchers took data from the 2018 Iowa Youth Survey of sixth, eighth and 11th graders to see whether there was an association between bullying and mental health and suicidal ideation, according to the study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.
The results showed different forms of bullying did have an impact on feelings of sadness or hopelessness or thoughts of suicide — but that they did not impact students equally.
Identity bullying, which includes bullying based on sexual orientation or gender identity as well as sexual jokes, was correlated with significant feelings of distress or suicide attempts, the study said.
Cyberbullying and social bullying — leaving someone out or turning peers against them — followed identity bullying on degree of impact.
The study is limited in that the sample did not include a high level of racial and religious diversity, but it does show “a theme very consistent with recent surveys as well as what I’m seeing in my clinical practice,” said child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Neha Chaudhary, chief medical officer at BeMe Health who is in the faculty at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Chaudhary was not involved in the research.
The teachers and school administrators surveyed were worried most about physical bullying, however, according to the study.
“This is a good learning for schools and families as they think about anti-bullying initiatives and how to talk to young people about the effects of bullying,” Chaudhary said.
Who is bullied most
It makes sense that identity would be a particularly painful form of bullying.
“Identity is so incredibly important for kids and teens as they develop, and not being able to be themselves without fear of judgement or bullying from others is not only isolating, it can significantly alter their confidence, peace of mind, and ability to see a future for themselves that’s free of pain,” Chaudhary said in an email. “People just want to be themselves, and be loved for who they are.”
The survey data reviewed by the study team revealed a troubling statistic when it came to the state of adolescent mental health.
“About 70,000 students responded to this survey. Five percent of them had attempted suicide in the last year,” Rovers said. “That’s 3,500 kids.”
And this week’s results of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s biannual Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed mental distress among teens is getting worse.
In rates that “increased dramatically” over the past decade, most high school girls (57%) felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, double the rate for teen boys (29%), according to the CDC. Nearly 1 in 3 teen girls seriously considered attempting suicide.
Most LGBTQ students (52%) have also recently experienced poor mental health, and more than 1 in 5 attempted suicide in the past year, the CDC survey showed.
Solutions that address adolescent mental health may come from families and schools working together — not in focusing on what the kids themselves can change, Rovers said.
“Blaming this on some 9-year-old kid is not right,” he added.
What to do for the bully
When it comes to bullying, there are three types of players: the bully, the victim and the child that is both being bullied and bullying others, Rovers said.
All three need support, said Dr. Hina Talib, adolescent medicine specialist at the Atria Institute in New York and associate professor of clinical pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.
“Bullying is such a pattern of behavior that causes harm to the victim of the bully, the children that might just be witnessing the bullying happening and even to the bully themselves,” said Talib, who was not involved in the research.
Rarely is a child exerting power over others just for its own sake, Talib added.
While caregivers may have the first reaction to punish their child when they hear they are bullying others, it is important to probe a little deeper into what is going on with them, she said.
“There are likely reasons there that are causing them to act out in this way,” Talib explained. “Underneath that, I think it’s important to see that their child is hurting also.”
She recommended coming to them with the mindset of “this is not acceptable behavior, and this is why, and I’m here to help you through it,” Talib said.
“The bully can and should be helped as well,” she added. “There’s almost always more to it.”
There are many ideas about what motivates bullying behavior, but one could be that kids are emulating how they see the adults in their lives resolve conflict, Rovers said. These adolescents might learn that violence is a way to protect themselves.
What to do for the victim
For children that are being bullied, they may not always be direct in telling the adults in their lives what is wrong, Talib said.
Instead of hearing about cruel words or isolating actions, families might first see stress, anxiety, depression, stomachaches and avoiding school, she said.
She recommended being attentive to your child and their individual behaviors and stepping in when you see a change. That could mean asking directly, having their pediatrician speak to them about it privately or even coming to them indirectly.
A helpful way in could be to ask about their friends’ experiences.
Say something like: “There was an interesting research report about bullying, and it made me think about bullying. It made me interested in if your friends were bullied or if you ever witnessed a bullying situation,” Talib said.
If you do find that your child is the victim of bullying, Talib said it’s a good idea to get in contact with the school and the other family to develop an action plan together.
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