Bullying And Mental Illness In Kids

May 6, 2013


by Brooke McDonald

I’m not a mother yet, but as a woman, I am on high alert for unkind interactions. Perhaps this is my natural inclination for empathy, or perhaps it’s partly a function of all the violence caused by mentally troubled individuals that has hit national news in recent months. Call me nosy, but I can’t help it – whether I’m at the grocery store, the gym, or the gas station, my ears and eyes are on constant vigilance, a law enforcement of my own dedicated to ensuring things are at peace between people.

It’s no wonder I’m concerned – I think we all are, knowing how mental illness is escalading in young people. The American Psychiatric Foundation has said that one in five children and adolescents have a mental health disorder, and one in 10 has a serious disorder.  These are huge, huge numbers.

Bullying comes up frequently related to mental health disorders. In college, I had friends who even as adults made weekly visits to a campus counselor to deal with the after-effects of years of bullying in middle school and high school.. My friends’ stories broke my heart and made me increasingly aware of the devastating effect of bullying on a person’s long-term wellbeing.

You never outgrow bullying, a recent Duke Medicine survey says

Researchers at Duke Medicine recently released findings in 2013 from a survey on the long-term psychological effects of bullying – and these are considered “the most definitive to date.” Bullying does affect victims in long-lasting ways, the study supports, and it rejects prior ideas that victims can forget and move on from bullying easily.

Victims and bullies alike were found to be at a higher risk for developing psychiatric disorders, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and depression than individuals who never experienced bullying, the study found. Those who were victims only had “higher levels of depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety, panic disorder and agoraphobia.”

The study integrated over 20 years of data from a group of participants examined since adolescence. A group of over 1400 children in different counties in North Carolina was assessed yearly to determine whether they had experienced bullying. The assessments began in childhood until age 16, and then periodically into adulthood afterwards for over 1200 of the children.

In case we had forgotten, in case we had blown it off, news alert: bullying does impact the children who are involved.

Encouraging education

Our nation appears to be actively listening to the mental anguish of its youth – and not only listening, but acting to change it through awareness. In Miami-Dade county, the school district implemented a nationwide program in the last few months called “Typical or Troubled?” to combat mental illness in kids and train adults and professionals to notice troubling signs. The program, although new to Miami-Dade County, is not actually new – it originated after the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 and has been used in over 400 schools nationwide since.

The educational program teaches parents how to identify mental health problems, the importance of intervention, characteristics of mental disorders, the impact of a mental health issue on a teen and school community, and how adults can make a difference in a child’s life. Since its initiation, the program has shown success in raising awareness, increasing referrals, and preventing suicides.

As the program clearly shows, the active, caring, trained diligence of adults can make a world of a difference in the life of a child. The importance of awareness cannot be discounted.

We can make a difference

I don’t want to become one of those “hover mothers” who volunteers to be a lunch lady in order to keep an eye on her kids, but I can 100% understand how they develop. Children go off to school, and mothers release them with helpless hands to the forces that be – the bullies that be. It’s an unkind world – and children are vulnerable, with barely the skill set to protect themselves from physical punches, much less verbal ones.  What can parents do?

Understanding that bullying is real, and the effects of bullying shouldn’t be ignored, is a start. Then, knowing how to detect signs of emotional trouble and mental ill-effects is a second step in the right direction. Awareness is key, along with the willingness to act, to protect, to defend and ensure that interactions remain friendly between young people.

In addition, the incredible value of treating people with respect and kindness cannot be ignored – wherever we are, whatever we are doing. Bullying begins with all of us, and it can end with all of us, too.

Image Credit: Mike Bailey-Gates