How bullying in school affects a child`s mental health

anxious teen

The Children and Youth Mental Health survey found that anxiety is a concern for a majority of youth. (Paulius Brazauskas/Shutterstock)

A staggering 63 per cent of Canadian members of the millennial generation are at high risk for mental health issues, according to a 2017 report by Ipsos  And rates of anxiety and depression are on the rise among teens. Smart phones and social media get much of the blame. But a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal identifies another important factor: a strong link between being bullied as a child and developing severe mental health problems as a teen.

The study, by researchers at McGill University, used data from the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development. Researchers followed 1363 children born in 1997 and 1998 for a total of 15 years. Teens who faced severe bullying when they were younger were more than twice as likely to have depression and low moods. Bullied kids were also three times more likely to suffer from anxiety in their teenage years. Worse still, they were three and a half times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and to try to harm themselves.

It’s the history of bullying that drives some teens to thoughts of suicide. In other words, the suicide risk is not because the teen is clinically depressed, which of course can co-exist. Another important finding in the study is that 15 per cent of the children exposed to the most serious forms of bullying were victimized from the very beginning of their time in school through to high school.

We’re talking about severe bullying only. Moderate victimization did not predispose teens to anxiety and depression. The study refers to bullying without specifying whether any of it was due to cyberbullying. 

Serious questions have been raised about the role social media plays in causing psychological distress among teens. Psychologist and author Jean Twenge says that Facebook and Instagram increase anxiety and depression by reducing face-to-face human contact. The more kids connect with peers online, the more isolated they feel, leading to psychological distress. Teens who post photos and comments feel slighted when the posts aren’t acknowledged. When they send text messages, they feel anxious when they don’t get a reply.

Smartphones may be another contributing factor to emotional distress in teens. A 2015 survey found that 75 per cent of American teenagers owned or had access to a smartphone. Twenge says rates of anxiety began to take off in 2012, when more than 50 per cent of the population owned a smartphone. She says kids use their smartphones seven to eight hours a day on average. That leads to a lack of sleep, which increases the risk of anxiety and depression.

Unfortunately, the system seems unprepared to deal with rising rates of teen anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. In many parts of Canada, there’s a lack of timely access to experts in mental health. Wait lists for child psychiatrists are long. The Mental Health Commission of Canada estimates 1.2 million children and youth in Canada are affected by mental illness, and fewer than one in five receive appropriate treatment. If the number of teens with mental health issues grows, the system likely won’t be able to handle it. 

Often, teens in crisis and with no access to a mental health professional end up going to the emergency department. There, they encounter people who lack expertise in mental health. In my experience, if a teen isn’t suicidal or having a psychotic break, they’ll be discharged, often without appropriate outpatient support. 

The system must provide more and better health care services geared to teens. It’s also worthwhile to address the fundamental causes. Mary Gordon, an educator in Toronto, has developed an award-winning school-based program called Roots of Empathy, in which students observe two parents and their baby interacting. When the baby cries, the students try to figure out why. In that way, they practise seeing things from the baby’s point of view, and develop empathy for the child. The program was tested in Manitoba and the U.K., where it reduced violent incidents in school. 

Parents should try and limit their kids’ use of smartphones to two hours per day or less. That seems to be the sweet spot for avoiding mental health problems. Last week, there were calls for Apple to do more to help combat addiction to smartphones. Still, I know just how easy it is for kids to stay ahead of their parents when it comes to technology.

I don’t see the problem of mental health issues in teens going away anytime soon.

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CBC | Health News