Published: June 10, 2021

Screening and early interventions to address loneliness, sleep disturbances and alcohol consumption can help to reduce the association between being bullied at school and suicidal behaviours. This is a recommendation of a global study from Life Course Centre researchers at the University of Queensland that examined the relationship between bullying victimisation and suicidal behaviours in more than 280,000 teenagers, aged 13-17, in 90 countries worldwide.

It found 32.4 per cent of adolescents had been bullied, while 12.1 per cent reported suicidal ideation, 11.1 per cent suicidal planning, and 10.9 per cent a suicide attempt. Those who had been bullied, compared to those not bullied, had higher rates of suicidal ideation, planning and attempt. “Bullying victimisation and associated adolescent suicide behaviours are a major global health issue, with substantial detrimental ‘ripple effects’ on friends, families and communities,” said lead author Md. Mehedi Hasan, a Life Course Centre PhD student at UQ’s Institute for Social Science Research. “Our study, for the first time, sheds light on key factors involved in the relationship between school bullying victimisation and adolescent suicidal ideation, suicidal planning and suicide attempts.”

Teenagers who were bullied were at increased risk of physical inactivity, hunger, soft drink and fast food consumption, truancy, smoking, alcohol consumption, peer victimisation and conflict, sleep disturbance, loneliness, lack of peer support and less parental supervision and connectedness. Of these factors, the strongest links between adolescent bullying and suicidal behaviours were identified as loneliness, sleep disturbances and alcohol consumption, said co-author Associate Professor Abdullah Mamun. “To address suicidal behaviours through school-based bullying prevention initiatives, there is a need to screen adolescents for these factors and design policies and programs that promote social engagement, good sleep health and less alcohol consumption,” Dr Mamun said.

Loneliness, as the single strongest factor in the association between bullying and suicidal behaviours, should be an especially strong focus of screening and early interventions, the study found. It also described a ‘feedback loop’ between loneliness and bullying victimisation, with students experiencing one of these risks also more likely to experience the other. Sleep disturbances and alcohol consumption can also feed into this cycle.

Life Course Centre Director Professor Janeen Baxter said social connectedness and peer relationships are crucial to adolescent development, health and well-being. “The findings of this study are particularly timely given the events of COVID-19, where social distancing measures, school closures, and stay-at-home orders may have exacerbated feelings of loneliness in adolescents,” Professor Baxter said. “The pandemic may have also increased adolescents’ exposure to cyberbullying through more time spent online. In light of this, it is important for adolescent bullying prevention and suicide strategies to carefully consider the important role of peer connection in informing and designing targeted interventions.”

The study, ‘Pathways linking bullying victimisation and suicidal behaviours among adolescents’, was published in Psychiatry Research. It was authored by Md. Mehedi Hasan, Dr Yaqoot Fatima, Dr Anne Cleary, Professor Baxter and Associate Professor Mamun of UQ’s ISSR and also included collaborations with Dr Sumali Pandey of Minnesota State University and Md. Tariqujjaman of The University of Dhaka and International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Bangladesh.