Bullying: How It Can Lead to Mental Distress, Suicide in Children

Source: Healthline

  • Researchers say bullying can be a factor in mental distress and suicide attempts by children and teens.
  • They say this type of distress is especially common among LGBTQ+ youth.
  • Experts say parents can help children who are bullied by teaching them emotional and interpersonal skills as well as assisting them in building relationships with school personnel.

The reasons behind sadness, depression, and suicide among teens are complex, but some forms of bullying may play a role in increasing the likelihood of their occurrence.

That’s the conclusion reached in a studyTrusted Source published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

Researchers say nearly one in three young people in the United States may experience bullying, with the occasional story of a teen’s suicide seemingly linked to bullying activity.

LGBTQ+ teens and bullying

However, not all bullying is created equal.

Researchers say that bullying based on a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or around hurtful sexual comments is consistently correlated with teens’ feelings of depression, mental distress, and acts of attempted suicide.

“We know that youth who engage in self-harming behaviors do so for a good reason – meaning a good reason to them. A young person who is bullied can become anxious and depressed, both part of the suicide equation,” said Jon Mattleman, MS, a clinician at the New England Clinical Director for Minding Your Mind, a nonprofit organization that provides mental health education and suicide prevention programs in schools, communities, and workplaces.

“We also know that 50 percent of LBGTQ+ students have seriously considered suicide versus 14 percent of heterosexual students, so this is a vulnerable population,” Mattleman told Healthline.

On the flip side, teens and adolescents who were physically bullied or bullied based on their religion did not appear to report heightened feelings of sadness or hopelessness compared to teens who were not bullied, the team researchers reported.

“Regarding bullying around religion, it’s worth considering that a victim of this may have greater and easier supports to access than a person who is bullied for gender or sexual orientation,” Mattleman noted. “For example, a youth bullied for religion can turn to parents, siblings, other family, their faith community, for support, whereas those same resources may be sources of conflict or additional rejection for a youth bullied for gender or sexual identity.”

Results from the study on bullying

The study included more than 70,000 responses from the 2018 Iowa Youth Survey of 6th, 8th, and 11th graders in Iowa.

While bullying around gender and sexual orientation had the strongest connections to mental distress, cyberbullying, social bullying, and race-based bullying were also significantly correlated to suicide attempts and mental anguish, the researchers reported.

“Being demeaned and put down impacts all aspects of well-being and results in kids questioning their worth, how they look, who they are, does anyone like them — every aspect of their identity can be challenged,” explained Lisa Pion-Berlin, PhD, a clinical hypnotherapist and chief executive officer of Parents Anonymous, a free national helpline that provides support for parents and children who are struggling.

“When they internalize these attacks, depression, self-harm, and often reckless behavior can emerge. If they doubt themselves, they are often too afraid to tell anyone. Sharing these worries is scary and challenging. Who to turn to? Who can help them? Do they fear for their safety? These are real questions,” Dr. Pion-Berlin told Healthline.

“Bullying is intentional and usually a repetitive behavior,” added Jillian Amodio, a social worker and founder of Moms for Mental Health.

“It can be easier to shake off one off-handed comment or mean look, but when it just keeps coming, we see how big the impact can be. Social media and the prevalence of cyberbullying have amplified the situation — the bullying behaviors literally follow kids everywhere they go,” Arnodio told Healthline.

“Suicide is the second-leading cause of deathTrusted Source among people aged 15 to 24 in the U.S. and bullying has a role to play,” she added.


How to help children who are bullying

“These findings are an important learning that can be utilized in not only training medical professionals but also those charged with educating our children in schools and institutions of higher learning,” said Dr. Faisal Tai, a psychiatrist and chief executive officer of PsychPlus.

“There are several ways that parents can help reduce the chances of their children being bullied in school,” he told Healthline. “Nurturing a positive family climate and teaching your kids emotional and interpersonal skills can be crucial. But establishing and building relationships with school personnel and other parents of children at the school can also be very helpful. Having a pathway of communication such as this can ensure that if problems do exist, you are in a position to get the support of educators and other staffers to make sure it is resolved amicably.”

Overall, parents and experts emphasized the importance of support and connection in helping children deal with bullying.

“As a parent, seeing your child endure bullying can be devastating, infuriating, and make one feel helpless,” said Lisa Lawless, PhD, a clinical psychotherapist and mother of an LGBTQ+ son.

“The best things a parent can do are provide compassionate listening, get educated and connected to the LGBT+ community, and celebrate it with their children,” Dr. Lawless told Healthline. “Providing a safe and loving environment is good for kids and their parents as it creates resilience and positivity.”

Parents should also stay alert for signs of depression and mental distress in their kids, although it can sometimes be hard to spot.

“Signs of depression can be any lack in routine — less sleep, less eating, not going out with friends, not talking to siblings or parents, etc.,” Pion-Berlin said. “Reach out and create a safe space to have them share what is going on. Reassure them you are not here to judge but help. Keep listening and think through the circumstances. Some situations could be more harmful than others. But think through what to do. Do the police need to be called? How can the school help? Do you have connections to a religious or community group that provides support?”

She also suggested calling the National Parent Helpline at 855-427-2736.

Date: February 15, 2023