Opinion: Bullying needs to be addressed at every level of our communities. Here's how.

A girl peeks through window blinds. Photo by: Brodie Vissers / CC 0

Globally, 246 million adolescents and children experience bullying — and according to a report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the prevalence by country can range from 10 percent to over 65 percent. Whether it happens on the playground, in the hallways or in the comments section of an Instagram post, we know that those who are bullied are more likely to have low self-esteem, experience stress or anxiety, become depressed, and consider suicide.

Sadly, according to the World Health Organization, suicide and accidental death from self-harm consistently rank among the leading causes of death for adolescent girls and boys worldwide.

Why aren’t bullying and mental health being addressed in school curricula? Bullying is more than mean behavior and harassment: It’s intentional peer victimization, either physical or psychological, that can involve teasing, spreading rumors, deliberate exclusion from group activities, and physical violence, such as hitting and kicking.

There are differences in the ways males and females bully, how they are bullied, and what they are bullied about. But how much do we know about these gender differences and how does bullying impact adolescent girls’ and boys’ mental health?

Recently, the United States Agency for International Development’s YouthPower Learning project led a multicountry analysis of WHO’s Global School-based Student Health Survey for six low- and middle-income countries, including Cambodia, El Salvador, Ghana, Iraq, Maldives, and eSwatini, formerly Swaziland. Its aim was to investigate the associations between bullying, violence, and other factors that contribute to poor mental health among in-school adolescent girls and boys aged 13−17.

The results were consistent across five of the six LMICs. In-school adolescent girls reported higher levels of loneliness than boys, as well as sleep problems due to worrying. In Iraq, Ghana, and El Salvador, adolescent girls were between two and six times more likely than boys to ever plan suicide.

We simply cannot underestimate the damage bullying does to a person’s academic, social, physical and emotional health, and well-being. Across every country, bullying based on someone’s appearance or enacted through sexual jokes, gestures, and comments increased the risk of poor adolescent mental health. These experiences were tied to stereotypes around how girls and boys should look or act toward one another. In all countries except El Salvador, adolescent girls experienced greater loneliness. Of course, it’s not just girls that are affected. In El Salvador, Iraq, and eSwatini, adolescent boys were far more likely to lose sleep over bullying based on their appearance.

Based on our research, the YouthPower Learning team identified four ways to address bullying:

1. Understand the social context. There’s a huge gap in evidence about how the experiences of bullying impact girls and boys differently. We also don’t know how bullying is influenced by gender norms and inequalities. Further research is needed to understand the gender-related factors that influence how bullying and other forms of violence impact adolescent girls and boys.

2. Engage the whole community to address it. Parents, caregivers, teachers, and peers play an important role in providing children with the support they need to be able to address bullying and improve their mental health. Teachers and administrators should be given gender-sensitive training in how to plan and implement relevant and effective activities for students.

3. Integrate gender and mental health into school curricula. Create a safe space for dialogue and to reflect on the experiences of bullying for boys and girls. Implement school-based psychosocial interventions to empower both girls and boys and reduce bullying, making sure that they are developmentally and culturally appropriate.

4. Take a holistic approach to bullying and violence prevention. Whether it’s in your community or at policy level, preventing bullying and its impacts on mental health should be a long-term, systematic, school- and community-wide effort. In addition to identifying ways to reduce bullying and raise awareness, apply evidence-based positive youth development strategies to strengthen an adolescent’s life skills and values — including empathy, decision-making, communication, the ability to foster safe spaces and conflict resolution.

Given the impact of gender and bullying on mental health in LMICs, it is critical to integrate different research, and programmatic and policy recommendations into a comprehensive and multitiered approach.

If we fail to prioritize the well-being of children and adolescents within development, we miss the chance to make sure they know they’re not alone. USAID’s investments, which include the Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls, the Youth In Development Policy and the Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy, provide a window of opportunity for tackling the barriers that keep adolescent girls and boys from achieving their full potential.

It’s time to seize opportunities like these and — as a 5-year-old niece would say — be upstanders when they need us the most.

About the authors

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    Christina Juan

    Christina Juan is a researcher with the Demographic and Health Surveys Program and is based in Washington, DC, working on gender and health issues in developing countries. Current research topics include addressing barriers to family planning, the effects of interviewer characteristics regarding sensitive topics, and trends and community-level determinants of child marriage. Juan previously worked for non-governmental organizations, including the International Center for Research on Women as a gender and health specialist on adolescent mental health and reproductive health research studies, as well as International Planned Parenthood Federation as an evaluation officer to conduct learning and evaluation initiatives. Juan has an M.Sc. in Reproductive & Sexual Health Research from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Michigan.
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    Chisina Kapungu

    Chisina Kapungu is a senior gender and youth specialist for YouthPower Learning at the International Center for Research on Women. In this role, Chisina Kapungu provides technical oversight to research and evaluation projects focused on gender, youth development and adolescent health. She has nearly 15 years of experience as a clinical psychologist, community-based researcher and program developer with special expertise in adolescent health, sexual and reproductive health and HIV/AIDS. She manages research and evaluations designed to build the evidence base about positive youth development and informs the global community on how to strengthen youth's skills, assets, competencies and enabling environment. Prior to joining YouthPower Learning and ICRW in 2015, Chisina was an assistant professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at University of Illinois at Chicago leading maternal acnd child projects in Ghana and Zimbabwe. She also worked as a health policy fellow in the office of Senator Edward Markey (D-MA), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy, where she provided scientific and technical expertise identifying emerging health policy issues in women's health, infectious disease, global and domestic public health crisis response, and international development.