Declining youth mental health may be driven by increased abuse and bullying

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Young adults around the world are reporting three to five times more physical abuse, sexual abuse, and bullying than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations — and they’re struggling more mentally as a result.

Such are the results of a new report from Sapien Labs, which tracks mental health among internet-enabled populations around the world via its online Mental Health Quotient (MHQ). Based on the responses of 286,732 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed across 27 countries, Adult Mental Wellbeing after Abuse and Assault in Childhood also identified cyberbullying as a significant source of mental distress. All forms of childhood assault and abuse — physical, sexual, and online — were linked with worse mental-health outcomes than the death of a parent or sibling, the rates of which have declined over the years while the incidence of abuse increased.

In total, the results indicate that 31% of young adults experienced at least one such form of abuse or assault during their childhoods, compared with 12-14% of 45-64 year-olds and even smaller percentages, between 5% and 10% among older people.

In addition, the report states, “Global rates of in-person bullying were a soaring 19% while physical and sexual assault, as well as cyberbullying, were between 7 and 9% for the youngest adults. These rates are about double the rates experienced by adults aged 55 and older for physical and sexual abuse or assault, and 3-fold higher for in-person bullying,” pointing out that cyberbullying was nonexistent in the pre-internet childhoods of older generations.

Analyzing the data from different countries, the report identifies Brazil as having the highest rates of childhood abuse or assault of any type, followed by the “Core Anglosphere” of the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Australia; the latter also showed the highest rates of cyberbullying.

Reporting of childhood sexual abuse specifically was highest in Latin American countries, with respondents from Honduras reporting the most. In general, both cyberbullying and sexual abuse and assault were lowest in the Middle East and North Africa, plus other African countries. Physical abuse and assault were highest in Saudi Arabia and lowest in Angola.

Adult Mental Wellbeing after Abuse and Assault in Childhood is the latest report from Sapien Labs, a nonprofit organization that runs the Mental Health Million Project and its annual Mental State of the World Report tracking mental wellbeing via the MHQ. In an interview with Mad in America regarding the 2022 Mental State of the World Report, Sapien founder and chief scientist Tara Thiagarajan discussed the impact of cultural and economic factors, also noting the introduction of the internet and smartphones as a hindrance on the “social self” and, subsequently, mental well-being.

Sapien’s latest report describes the MHQ survey as a “transdiagnostic assessment” incorporating symptoms of 10 disorders outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as well as elements from the Research Domain Criteria. It features 47 items graded by respondents on a nine-point “life impact scale”; in addition, the MHQ also collected data relating to “the demographic, life experience, lifestyle and situational profile including information on adversities and traumas.”

After answering roughly 15 minutes’ worth of questions, respondents are given a score, which can range from −100 to +200 along a spectrum of categories from “distressed” at one end to “thriving” at the other. According to the report, those suffering the fallout from childhood assault and abuse all fell within the “struggling” range, from -50 to 0.

The 18- to 24-year-olds who reported childhood experiences of sexual abuse or assault scored -12; those who reported physical abuse or assault scored -13; those who reported cyberbullying scored -6. By comparison, those who suffered the death of a parent or sibling during childhood scored 11, while those who reported no childhood trauma of any kind scored 50.

“The most common adult symptoms of those who experienced abuse in childhood were obsessive thoughts, feelings of sadness, distress or hopelessness, fear and anxiety, avoidance and withdrawal, and guilt and self-blame,” the report stated. Additional symptoms included problems with emotional control, suicidal thoughts, “detachment from reality” and cognitive symptoms such as slowed thinking and issues with concentration.

Even among younger adults reporting no trauma of any kind, their MHQ was lower than that of older generations — so an increase in the trauma itself can’t explain all of it.

Among the limitations acknowledged in the report are its focus on the internet-enabled world. It also acknowledges many unanswered questions, such as:

“Why is there such an increase in childhood abuse and assault with each younger generation? Is it that younger adults ascribe an expanded meaning to what constitutes sexual abuse or bullying relative to older generations? Does childhood abuse progressively fade from our memory as we age? Or, as a society, have we simply become more abusive to our young? It is perhaps a combination of all of these factors.”

It also asks why, according to the results, cyberbullying leaves a greater impact on young adults than physical bullying.

“This is perhaps telling of human nature – that the public shame of cyberbullying is far more impactful than the bullying itself. The lack of ability to erase the online trail of cyberbullying may compound its effect and cause it to reverberate longer in time, making it harder to overcome than the death of a family member. Given its significant impact, it calls for a multi-dimensional approach to better define cyberbullying, educate young people on appropriate online behavior, develop appropriate guardrails in online forums, and identify appropriate consequences that can be enforced.”

It concludes:

“Altogether, these findings demand deeper understanding and self-reflection. How have we, as a society, with all that we call progress, created a world that is increasingly more abusive and traumatic in childhood? What are the socio-cultural factors of modern society that drive it, and what can we do to reverse course? It is a sobering call to action.”

 

 

Editor’s Note: Part of MITUK’s core mission is to present a scientific critique of the existing paradigm of care. Each week we will be republishing Mad in America’s latest blog on the evidence supporting the need for radical change.

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Amy Biancolli is a staff reporter for Mad in America. A journalist with decades of experience writing about the arts, culture, film and other topics for the Albany Times Union, the Houston Chronicle and Hearst Newspapers, she's also the author of three books—two of them memoirs of loss and grief. Her most recent, Figuring Shit Out: Love, Laughter, Suicide, and Survival (2014, Behler Publications), is an account of the year following the suicide of her husband, author Christopher D. Ringwald. She's a graduate of Hamilton College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.