The Grapevine

Witnessing Violence Damages Teens' Mental Health, Just Like Being Bullied

According to a longitudinal study from Université de Montréal (UdeM) in Canada, young teens who witnessed violence were more likely to experience poor mental health and academic impairment when followed up after two years.

The study titled "Witnessing violence in early secondary school predicts subsequent student impairment" was published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health on Sept. 16.

Nearly 4,000 high school students in Québec were recruited by the research team. One of the strengths of the methodology is that the team had access to psychological information on the students before they witnessed violence. This helped ensure accuracy, unlike past studies which did not have a way of knowing the psychological health of participants before traumatic events occurred in their lives.

The study was designed in a way where the team noted the different forms of violence a student was exposed to at the age of 13. Next, they statistically tested how their experiences of witnessing violence were related to psychological, social, and academic problems by the time they turned 15 years old.

Witnessing major incidents of violence (physical assaults, carrying weapons) was associated with juvenile offences and later drug use. This association was also seen in the case of hidden or veiled violence (theft and vandalism).

On the other hand, being a witness to minor forms of violence (threats and insults) was linked to increases in social anxiety, depressive symptoms, reduced participation at school, and later drug use.

The findings also revealed a comparable magnitude of risk among students who were victims of violent incidents. This suggested that witnessing violence might have a similar long-term impact as experiencing it directly would.

"Most students reported witnessing violence. It is clear that approaches to prevention and intervention should include witnesses as well as victims and perpetrators and target all forms of school violence," said Michel Janosz, a professor at the School of Psycho-Education at UdeM.

"Of course, actively supportive family and community relationships represent important resources for facilitating coping strategies after having been exposed to events associated that inflict psychological or physical harm. These also prevent emotional desensitization to violence which also contributes to aggressive behavior in youth."

To tackle the problem, the research team believed that after-violence intervention programs could help by normalizing concern for fellow teens and solidify intolerance for such kinds of aggressive behavior. But most important of all, the researchers believe that schools should empower bystander students instead of just giving them messages to stay uninvolved when witnessing violence.

"Schools need to understand that discouraging student involvement can be interpreted by youth as promoting self-centeredness at the expense of community well-being," Janosz said. "Nobody should feel powerless."