Want to Improve Adult Mental Health? Prevent Bullying in Childhood

I recently had the opportunity to hear Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt from the University of Ottawa present fascinating research on the effects of bullying.  Her research suggests that bullying has far more long-reaching consequences for some youth then previously thought.  The now archived webinar, “Bullying Gets under Your Skin” is a must view for anyone who cares about preventing child maltreatment in general and bullying specifically.

Of particular note is that bullying is now being recognized as a form of trauma that impacts the stress response and even alters gene expression in some individuals which leads to long term physical and mental health issues.  In the webinar Dr. Vaillancourt describes how depression is the leading cause of disability world-wide and the majority of mental health problems among adults began in childhood or adolescence.  While it is easy to assume that internalizing problems precede a child being targeted by bullying, research demonstrates that the reverse is frequently true.  The majority of youth who experience depression and anxiety related to bullying did not have internalizing problems prior to their being targeted by bullying.  While there are moderators that impact negative outcomes for youth such as a supportive home environment, it is clear that bullying is a public health issue that warrants our attention.

Psychologist Alfred Adler theorized many decades ago that children have a fundamental need to belong and when this is interrupted healthy functioning decreases.  Dr. Vaillancourt also posits in the webinar how fundamental the need to belong is and suggests as bullying interrupts this sense of belonging the consequences are far-reaching.  In summary, if we are committed to preventing depression and other mental health issues among adults we need to focus more heavily on preventing bullying among children.

Making the Connection between Trauma and Bullying at IBPA 2014

I was pleased to note that the 2014 International Bullying Prevention Conference in San Diego, CA provided several sessions that made the connection between bullying and trauma. SAMHSA defines trauma as a “highly stressful experience in the face of a perceived threat to one’s self or to one’s physical integrity or to that of one’s family member, close friend or environment. “ The definition of bullying as a repeated, intentionally negative physical or psychological action involving an imbalance of power seems to suggest an overlap with trauma and the research appears to bear this out.   Amy Wolferman’s presentation on “Trauma as a Context for Bullying” noted that a study by Idsoe, Dyregrov & Idsoe (2012) found that for all bullied students, 27.6% of boys and 40.5% of girls had PTSD scores within the clinical range. The fact that bullying continues overtime suggests that many youth may experience complex trauma that is continuing as they attend school. Thus it is critical that schools create physically and psychologically safe places for students to learn. Student Support Team staff also need to screen for trauma symptoms with their students in general and in particular with students who report being bullied. While all students can benefit from universal SEL skills training, having trauma-informed interventions for bullied youth is also part of creating a safe and positive school climate.

Thus I was delighted to see a session on Mindfulness and Meditation led by high school students who were involved in a program at the UC-San Diego’s Center for Mindfulness. Many of these students shared that previously they had struggled with anxiety and depression but that regular practice of meditation and mindfulness had decreased their symptoms significantly. I would add that they seemed to have increased their resiliency to negative emotional experiences, something that all of us can benefit from in our daily life and traumatized youth in particular need these skills. This doesn’t mean that students learn to avoid negative emotions, but instead they learn to notice, accept, and work through difficult feelings without engaging in harmful defense mechanisms. As someone who has practiced meditation and mindfulness for the past year and a half and seen its benefits first-hand,  I enthusiastically support more mindfulness programs for youth and the adults who work with them.