When bullies destroy a young victim’s trust, mental health problems are likely to follow them into adulthood, a new study warns.

“There are few public health topics more important than youth mental health right now,” said senior study author George Slavich, director of UCLA Health’s Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research, who called for investments in further research to identify risk factors and develop programs to improve lifelong health and resilience.

Working with the University of Glasgow, his team looked at data from 10,000 children in the U.K. who were followed for nearly 20 years. 

Researchers found that kids who were bullied at age 11 and then became distrustful by age 14 were roughly 3.5 times more likely to have mental health problems by age 17 than those who were more trusting.

The findings were published Feb. 13 in the journal Nature Mental Health.

Researchers believe the study is the first to probe the link between peer bullying, interpersonal distrust and development of mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, hyperactivity and anger.

Slavich said the findings could help schools and other institutions develop programs to address mental health impacts of bullying.

The mental health of young people is a growing public concern.

In a sample of U.S. high school students, 44.2% said they had been depressed for at least two weeks in 2021, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ten percent said they had tried to take their own life.

While other research has linked bullying to mental and behavioral issues among youth, this is believed to be the first to confirm how bullying leads to distrust and, in turn, mental problems in late adolescence.

“What these data suggest is that we really need school-based programs that help foster a sense of interpersonal trust at the level of classroom and school,” Slavich said in a UCLA news release. “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.”

More information

Stopbullying.gov has tips for dealing with bullies.

SOURCE: University of California Los Angeles Health Sciences, news release, Feb. 13, 2024