The University of Texas at Austin Latino Research Initiative

Who's the Bully, Who's the Victim? Mental Health Study Sheds New Light on an Old Problem

Fri, October 12, 2018
Who's the Bully, Who's the Victim? Mental Health Study Sheds New Light on an Old Problem
"...sixth graders with mental health symptoms are in fact much more likely to be the recipient, rather than the perpetrator, of aggressive behaviors."

Written by Jessie Temple

Academic language has a way of making you read a sentence twice. Take this sentence, from a recent study on bullying and mental health by Latino Research Initiative fellow Dr. Melissa Dupont-Reyes: “Risk factors for acting aggressively include male gender and for receiving aggressive behaviors include those that are members of a sociopolitical minority group or those that are perceived as different from their peers—for example, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, body size and development, or disability.”  Read that again: what bullies tend to have in common is being male. What bullying victims tend to have in common is being different.

These findings might not be news to a sixth-grader, but they have serious implications for our national debate on mental health (not to mention on gun control, masculinity, and immigration). With every school shooting, the stigma surrounding mental health symptoms – namely, that students with mental health symptoms are more likely to shoot their fellow classmates than those without – grows larger and more dangerous. This stigma further isolates children who experience mental health symptoms, and it takes attention away from other significant risk factors, like a history of abusing animals, a history of dating violence, and – chillingly – a history of being male in America.

What did the study actually find? The findings, based on a diverse sample of sixth graders across 14 schools in Texas in 2011–2012, show that sixth graders with mental health symptoms are in fact much more likely to be the recipient, rather than the perpetrator, of aggressive behaviors. They were also much more likely to be bullied than were kids without symptoms: five times more likely, in fact, than nonsymptomatic kids to be threatened with a weapon. When symptomatic kids did act aggressively, they tended to be both an aggressor and a victim.

Embedded as we are in our own culture, it may be useful to look outside our borders for alternative approaches to school-based mental health interventions. For instance, Dr. Dupont-Reyes and Dr. Alice Villatoro recently traveled to Australia, where many schools use a toolkit that trains peers and teachers to recognize and address mental health symptoms (and where gun ownership is restricted by law). Here’s another sentence from the study that bears reading twice: “Communities at large may benefit from evidence- and school-based interventions that improve awareness of and tolerance to mental health conditions among youth.” Read that again: imagine living in a country where mental illness in children is treated, rather than mocked. Imagine living in a country where being different isn’t dangerous.

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