How childhood bullying is linked to mental health problems later, according to a new study

Children who become distrustful after being bullied are more likely to develop significant mental health problems as adolescents, according to a new study, published in the journal Nature Mental Health.

The study, co-led by UCLA Health and the University of Glasgow, is believed to be the first to examine the link of developing a strong distrust of others after childhood bullying, and the subsequent reporting of mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, anger and hyperactivity.

Researchers examined data from 10,000 children in the U.K., who were studied for nearly two decades.

They found that those bullied at age 11 who then developed greater interpersonal distrust by age 14 were around “3.5 times more likely to experience clinically significant mental health problems at age 17 compared to those who developed less distrust,” according to a news release from UCLA Health Services.

Other researches have identified associations between bullying and mental health issues in young people, but UCLA Health said this study is the “first to confirm the suspected pathway to how bullying leads to distrust, and in turn, mental health problems in late adolescents.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies found that 44.2% of sampled high school students in the U.S. reported being depressed for at least two weeks in 2021, with one in 10 students surveyed having reported attempted suicide that year.

Diet, sleep or physical activity were also examined by researchers but the study found that “only interpersonal distrust was found to relate bullying to greater risk of experiencing mental health problems at age 17.”

“The researchers viewed these alarming trends from the perspective of Social Safety Theory, which hypothesizes that social threats, such as bullying, impact mental health partly by instilling the belief that other people cannot be trusted, or that the world is an unfriendly, dangerous or unpredictable place,” UCLA Health said.

Knowing that distrust is a risk factor for mental health issues, could help schools and other institutions to counter the negative impacts of bullying, according to the study’s senior author Dr. George Slavich, who directs UCLA Health’s Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research.

“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 said in a statement. “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.”

The study was co-authored by Slavich, who is a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA, and Dr. Dimitris Tsomokos, a researcher at the University of Glasgow.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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