The week of May 3 to May 9 marks Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week. This year’s theme is, “Mental health is fundamental.” The National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health is aiming to spread awareness and include mental health in all public health conversations, as it is essential to overall health and should be treated with the same importance as physical health issues. As stated by the American Psychological Association, both physical and mental health affect the way individuals feel internally and behave externally.
An estimated 15 million children in the United States are currently struggling with mental health symptoms and could be diagnosed with a disorder. However, only 7 percent of children who need mental health services get help. Many communities do not have access to mental health services, but another reason for the lack of action is that the public is not educated when it comes to recognizing signs of mental health disorders in children.
There has been extensive research linking physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse during formative years to long-term psychological issues. Bullying, however, has become an epidemic as of late and has been found to have similarly severe effects on children’s mental and physical health. A recent study even found that those who are bullied by peers are at a higher risk of presenting mental health issues than those who are abused by parents or other adults.
This groundbreaking study published on The Lancet: Psychiatry’s online journal studied two samples of children, one group of more than 4,000 in the United Kingdom (U.K.) and the other group of more than 1,200 in the United States (U.S.), through the age of 18. The U.K. sample studied parental abuse and neglect on children from eight weeks old to 8.6 years old, and bullying at ages eight, 10 and 13. The U.S. sample studied parental abuse, neglect and peer bullying at ages nine to 16. In both samples, various interviews were conducted with the parents and children at these ages to track the factors above.
When the subjects turned 18, they were assessed for mental health issues. 19 percent of the U.K. sample had mental health issues, as did 18 percent of the U.S. sample. The study found that mental health issues are significantly more likely to present themselves in children who are bullied by their peers than those abused by adults. In fact, the teenagers who were bullied were five times more likely to struggle with anxiety and twice as likely to report depression and self-harm than those who had been abused by an adult. Those who had been abused and bullied were not at a higher risk for mental health issues than the subjects who were only bullied.
There are many peripheral factors that come into play regarding mental health and the study tried to take these into consideration. These factors includes taking family hardship and maternal mental health into consideration, as these have been proven to increase the risk of child abuse and bullying. Also, it is possible and probable that the abuse was underreported by parents in the study. The study also did not measure severity of the abuse or bullying, or the age the child when the abuse began. However, the link between bullying and mental health disorders in children is undeniable and must be addressed.
Additionally, there is a cause-and-effect factor that needs to be studied further. For instance, an example provided by the American Psychological Association explains that a slightly overweight child might be teased for his or her weight, causing the child to isolate socially, which might lead to depression and a lack of interest in playing with other children or other physical activity, thus contributing to poor physical and mental health. The child might then be bullied further as a result. Alternatively, a child who is developing a mental health disorder at a young age might exhibit behaviors that, unfortunately, make him or her a target for bullies. This cause-and-effect needs to be studied further, though the fact remains that one in three children worldwide is bullied. Parents, teachers and the general public need to pay more attention to this growing epidemic, as its long-term effects on children are just now being exposed.
Suggested ways to reduce bullying include teaching children communication and conflict resolution skills at an early age and reinforcing them regularly. While bullying is not a new problem, its severity has increased exponentially with the rise of technology and social media. Mental health services need to be readily available to children who are bullied or otherwise struggling with mental health issues.
In honor of Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week, start a dialogue with your child about bullying. If your child is being bullied by his or her peers, you may start to notice signs of mental health disorders. Alternatively, if you find your child is bullying others, this could be a red flag for developing mental health issues that need to be treated. Help is available. Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego is a facility that specializes in the treatment of adolescents and teenagers struggling with mental health issues, substance abuse and dual diagnosis. Call the 24-hour helpline at 866-615-7266 to speak with a professional today.
Written by Courtney Howard, Sovereign Health Group writer