1. Study suggests lack of sleep could cause mood disorders in teens

    December 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology press release:

    Chronic sleep deprivation — which can involve staying up late, and waking up early for work or school — has become a way of life for both kids and adults, especially with the increasing use of phones and tablets late into the night. But this social jet lag poses some serious health and mental health risks: new research finds that for teenagers, even a short period of sleep restriction could, over the long-term, raise their risk for depression and addiction.

    University of Pittsburgh’s Peter Franzen and Erika Forbes invited 35 participants, aged 11.5-15 years, into a sleep lab for two nights. Half the participants slept for 10 hours, while the other half slept only four hours. A week later, they came back to the lab for another two nights and adopted the opposite sleep schedule from their initial visit.

    Each time they visited the lab, the participants underwent brain scans while playing a game that involved receiving monetary rewards of $10 and $1. At the end of each visit, the teens answered questions that measured their emotional functioning, as well as depression symptoms.

    The researchers found that sleep deprivation affected the putamen, an area of the brain that plays a role in goal-based movements and learning from rewards. When participants were sleep-deprived and the reward in the game they played was larger, the putamen was less responsive. In the rested condition, the brain region didn’t show any difference between high- and low-reward conditions.

    Franzen and Forbes also found connections between sleep restriction and mood: after a night of restricted sleep, the participants who experienced less activation in the putamen also reported more symptoms of depression. This is consistent with findings, from a large literature of studies on depression and reward circuitry, that depression is characterized by less activity in the brain’s reward system.

    The results suggest that sleep deprivation in the tween and teen years may interfere with how the brain processes rewards, which could disrupt mood and put a person at risk of depression, as well as risk-taking behavior and addiction.


  2. Researchers ‘dismantle’ mindfulness intervention to see how each component works

    December 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Brown University press release:

    As health interventions based on mindfulness have grown in popularity, some of the field’s leading researchers have become concerned that the evidence base for such practices is not yet robust enough. A new study shows how a rigorous approach to studying mindfulness-based interventions can help ensure that claims are backed by science.

    One problem is that mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) sometimes blend practices, which makes it difficult to measure how each of those practices affects participants. To address that issue, the researchers took a common intervention for mood disorders — mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) — and created a controlled study that isolated, or dismantled, its two main ingredients. Those include open monitoring (OM) –– noticing and acknowledging negative feelings without judgment or an emotional secondary reaction to them; and focused attention (FA) — maintaining focus on or shifting it toward a neutral sensation, such as breathing, to disengage from negative emotions or distractions.

    “It has long been hypothesized that focused attention practice improves attentional control while open-monitoring promotes emotional non-reactivity — two aspects of mindfulness thought to contribute its therapeutic effects,” said study lead and corresponding author Willoughby Britton, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior in the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. “However, because these two practices are almost always delivered in combination, it is difficult to assess their purported differential effects. By creating separate, validated, single-ingredient training programs for each practice, the current project provides researchers with a tool to test the individual contributions of each component and mechanism to clinical endpoints.”

    In the study, the researchers randomized more than 100 individuals with mild-to-severe depression, anxiety and stress to take one of three eight-week courses: one set of classes provided a standardized MBCT that incorporated the typical blend of OM and FA. The two other classes each provided an intervention that employed only OM or only FA. In every other respect — time spent in class, time practicing at home, instructor training and skill, participant characteristics, number of handouts — each class was comparable by design.

    At the beginning and end of the classes, the researchers asked the volunteers to answer a variety of standardized questionnaires, including scales that measure their self-reported ability to achieve some of the key skills each practice is assumed to improve. If the researchers saw significant differences between the FA group and the OM group on the skills each was supposed to affect, then there would be evidence that the practices uniquely improve those skills as intervention providers often claim.

    Sure enough, the different practices engaged different skills and mechanisms as predicted. The FA-only group, for example, reported much greater improvement in the ability to willfully shift or focus attention than the OM-only group (but not the MBCT group, which also received FA training). Meanwhile, the OM-only group was significantly more improved than the FA-only group (but not the MBCT group) in the skill of being non-reactive to negative thoughts.

    “If FA practice promotes attentional control, and OM practice promotes emotional non-reactivity, then end users can alter the amount of each practice to fit their individual needs for each skill,” Britton said. “The study created validated single-practice programs that can be used by other researchers or providers for specific populations or conditions. This is the first step to an evidence-based personalized medicine approach to mindfulness.”

    The Science of Behavior Change

    Along with co-author and epidemiology associate professor Eric Loucks, director of Brown University’s Mindfulness Center, Britton is part of the five-university Mindfulness Research Collaborative. The collaborative is one of eight teams in the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health’s Science of Behavior Change (SOBC) Research Network.

    The new research will appear in print inae February 2018 special issue of the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy titled “An experimental medicine approach to behavior change: The NIH Science Of Behavior Change (SOBC),” which takes a mechanism-focused approach to studying behavioral interventions.

    The Mindfulness Research Collaborative (MRC) consists of 11 mindfulness researchers across five universities, and is one of the eight teams in the SOBC Research Network who are working to advance a mechanism-focused approach to behavioral interventions. The collaborative’s SOBC project “Mindfulness Influences on Self-Regulation: Mental and Physical Health Implications” seeks to identify self-regulation intervention targets that are engaged by MBIs, as well as factors that influence target engagement. The current paper describes the “Dismantling Mindfulness” concurrent clinical trial.

    Britton said the SOBC approach can make mindfulness more effective for people who practice it.

    “Mindfulness research in general could benefit from employing the SOBC experimental medicine approach,” she said. “Little is known about how MBIs work or how they should be modified to maximize effectiveness. The SOBC experimental medicine approach will not only help MBIs become maximally effective, but also provide essential mechanistic information that will help tailor the intervention and instructor training to specific populations and conditions.”


  3. Study suggests surrogate decision makers experience psychological distress

    by Ashley

    From the Regenstrief Institute press release:

    Nearly half of the 13 million older adults hospitalized annually in the United States are unable to make their own medical decisions and rely on surrogates, usually close family members, to make decisions for them. However little is known about how these surrogates respond to the demands put upon them. A new study from the Indiana University Center for Aging Research and the Regenstrief Institute explores predictors and frequency of surrogate decision-maker distress and has found high levels of both anxiety and depression.

    The researchers report that provision of high levels of emotional support to surrogates during their family member’s hospitalization was associated with more effective decisions and lower surrogate anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.

    While emotional support (such as, “hospital staff really listened to me when we talked”) was associated with decision quality, surprisingly provision of information (“I [surrogate] received as much detail about my loved one’s care as I needed”) was less important.

    The researchers note that their study provides a detailed look at the relationship between clinician communication and psychological well-being of the family member. While this observational study does not prove causation, it raises the question of whether improved emotional support of surrogates could lead to both better decisions for the patient and better psychological outcomes for the surrogate.

    “Family decision makers face emotional, ethical and communication challenges that differ from personal decision making. It is not enough to provide good information; family members also need emotional support when making difficult decisions,” said corresponding author Alexia Torke, MD, the IU Center for Aging Research associate director, Regenstrief Institute investigator and IU School of Medicine associate professor of medicine, who led the study.

    “As the population ages and more and more family members are thrust into the role of surrogate decision makers, appropriately supporting these family members will become a public health imperative,” she said. Dr. Torke is the associate division chief of general internal medicine and geriatrics at IU School of Medicine and is also affiliated with the IU Health Fairbanks Center for Medical Ethics and Daniel F. Evans Center for Spiritual and Religious Values in Healthcare.

    A total of 364 patient-surrogate pairs from three hospitals were enrolled in the study. The average patient age was 82. Six out of ten patients were female and nearly three out of ten were African-American. Surrogates’ average age was 58 and 71 percent were female. Two thirds of surrogates were the patient’s adult children; 17 percent were the patient’s spouse.

    As many as 15 percent of the surrogate decision makers were found to suffer from clinically high levels of anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress even six to eight weeks after the family member’s hospitalization. Some of the surrogate distress experienced during the acute illness resolved, but remained high for over 10 percent of surrogates. Surprisingly, anxiety and depression was not significantly higher for those making decisions for ICU patients than for other inpatients.

    “Even though high quality information is associated with overall satisfaction with the hospital stay, information without emotional support may be harmful to surrogates,” said Dr. Torke. “Improved emotional support could lead to both better decisions for the patient and better psychological outcomes for the surrogate. Physicians, nurses, chaplains and social workers can provide emotional support to family members. This study points to the fact that this support is very important.”


  4. Study examines which adolescents benefit most from sleep interventions

    December 3, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Wiley press release:

    In a recent study of adolescents, the benefits of cognitive-behavioral sleep interventions were greatest among individuals with higher levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms. The results, which are published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, were consistent across genders.

    “We know there is a strong link between emotional problems, like anxiety and depression, and sleep problems. In the past some researchers and clinicians have thought that these emotional problems might interfere with sleep improvement treatments, but our results with adolescents show that the opposite is the case,” said senior author Dr. Nicholas Allen, of the University of Oregon. “Those with higher levels of emotional problems were actually more likely to benefit from sleep interventions. This opens up new opportunities to use sleep improvement as a way to address mental health.”


  5. Study links teenage depression to father’s depression

    November 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University College London press release:

    Adolescents whose fathers have depressive symptoms are more likely to experience symptoms of depression themselves, finds a new study led by UCL researchers.

    While the link between mothers’ depression and depression in their children is well-established, the new Lancet Psychiatry study is the first to find an association between depression in fathers and their teenaged children, independent of whether the mother has depression, in a large sample in the general population. The effects of fathers’ and mothers’ depression on their children’s symptoms were similar in magnitude.

    “There’s a common misconception that mothers are more responsible for their children’s mental health, while fathers are less influential — we found that the link between parent and teen depression is not related to gender,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Gemma Lewis (UCL Psychiatry).

    “Family-focused interventions to prevent depression often focus more on mothers, but our findings suggest we should be just as focused on fathers,” she said.

    The researchers drew on two large longitudinal studies of children: Growing up in Ireland, and the Millennium Cohort Study in England and Wales, using data from 6070 and 7768 families from the two studies, respectively. Parental depressive symptoms were assessed using a questionnaire when the children were 9 and 7 years old in the two cohorts, and then adolescent depressive symptoms were assessed when the children were 13 and 14 years old. The study samples were population-based, meaning they included people who experienced symptoms of depression but had not sought treatment.

    After adjusting for confounding factors such as maternal depression, family income and parental alcohol use, the researchers found that for every 3-point (one standard deviation) increase on the Mood and Feelings Questionnaire (MFQ; a commonly-used measure of depressive symptoms) on the part of fathers, there was an associated 0.2-point increase in the adolescent’s MFQ score. The findings were replicated in both independent study samples.

    Incidence of depression increases markedly at the beginning of adolescence, so the researchers say that understanding the risk factors at that age can be key to preventing depression later in life.

    “Men are less likely to seek treatment for depression. If you’re a father who hasn’t sought treatment for your depression, it could have an impact on your child. We hope that our findings could encourage men who experience depressive symptoms to speak to their doctor about it,” said Dr Lewis.

    Previous studies have shown links between paternal depression and poor behavioural and emotional outcomes in their children, but no large study in the general population (as opposed to a clinical population) has looked at the link with adolescent depression while taking into account maternal depression as well.

    “The mental health of both parents should be a priority for preventing depression among adolescents. There has been far too much emphasis on mothers but fathers are important as well,” said the study’s senior author, Professor Glyn Lewis (UCL Psychiatry).


  6. Study looks at mental health risks of too much screen time

    November 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the San Diego State University press release:

    Increased time spent in front of a screen — in the form of computers, cell phones and tablets — might have contributed to an uptick in symptoms of depression and suicide-related behaviors and thoughts in American young people, especially girls, according to a new study by San Diego State University professor of psychology Jean Twenge. The findings point to the need for parents to monitor how much time their children are spending in front of media screens.

    “These increases in mental health issues among teens are very alarming,” Twenge said. “Teens are telling us they are struggling, and we need to take that very seriously.”

    Twenge, along with SDSU graduate student Gabrielle Martin and colleagues Thomas Joiner and Megan Rogers at Florida State University, looked at questionnaire data from more than 500,000 U.S. teens found in two anonymous, nationally representative surveys that have been conducted since 1991. They also looked at data suicide statistics kept by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    They found that the suicide rate for girls aged 13-18 increased by 65 percent between 2010 and 2015, and the number of girls experiencing so-called suicide-related outcomes — feeling hopeless, thinking about suicide, planning for suicide or attempting suicide — rose by 12 percent. The number of teen girls reporting symptoms of severe depression increased by 58 percent.

    “When I first saw these sudden increases in mental health issues, I wasn’t sure what was causing them,” said Twenge, author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — And Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. “But these same surveys ask teens how they spend their leisure time, and between 2010 and 2015, teens increasingly spent more time with screens and less time on other activities. That was by far the largest change in their lives during this five-year period, and it’s not a good formula for mental health.”

    The researchers returned to the data and looked to see if there was a statistical correlation between screen-time and depressive symptoms and suicide-related outcomes. They found that 48 percent of teens who spent five or more hours per day on electronic devices reported at least one suicide-related outcome, compared to only 28 percent of those who spent less than an hour a day on devices. Depressive symptoms were more common in teens who spent a lot of time on their devices, as well.

    The findings fit with previous studies that have linked spending more time on social media to unhappiness.

    On the positive side, the researchers found that spending time away from screen and engaging in in-person social interaction, sports and exercise, doing homework, attending religious services, etc., was linked to having fewer depressive symptoms and suicide-related outcomes. The researchers reported their findings today in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

    While economic struggles are generally thought to be linked to depression and suicide, the U.S. economy was improving between 2010 and 2015, so that is unlikely to be the primary driver of these increases, Twenge noted.

    “Although we can’t say for sure that the growing use of smartphones caused the increase in mental health issues, that was by far the biggest change in teens’ lives between 2010 and 2015,” she said.

    The good news? You don’t have to totally give up on electronic devices to lower your risk for depression and suicide-relayed outcomes. Twenge said that limiting screen-time to one or two hours per day would statistically fall into the safe zone for device usage.


  7. Study suggests brain activity buffers against worsening anxiety

    November 21, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Duke University press release:

    Boosting activity in brain areas related to thinking and problem-solving may also buffer against worsening anxiety, suggests a new study by Duke University researchers.

    Using non-invasive brain imaging, the researchers found that people at-risk for anxiety were less likely to develop the disorder if they had higher activity in a region of the brain responsible for complex mental operations. The results may be a step towards tailoring psychological therapies to the specific brain functioning of individual patients.

    “These findings help reinforce a strategy whereby individuals may be able to improve their emotional functioning — their mood, their anxiety, their experience of depression — not only by directly addressing those phenomena, but also by indirectly improving their general cognitive functioning,” said Ahmad Hariri, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke. The results are published Nov. 17 in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

    Previous findings from Hariri’s group show that people whose brains exhibit a high response to threat and a low response to reward are more at risk of developing symptoms of anxiety and depression over time.

    In the current work, Hariri and Matthew Scult, a clinical psychology graduate student in the department of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, wanted to investigate whether higher activity in a region of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex could help shield these at-risk individuals from future mental illness.

    “We wanted to address an area of understanding mental illness that has been neglected, and that is the flip side of risk,” Hariri said. “We are looking for variables that actually confer resiliency and protect individuals from developing problems.”

    The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is our brain’s “executive control” center, helping us focus our attention and plan complex actions. It also plays a role in emotion regulation, and well-established types of psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy, engage this region of the brain by equipping patients with strategies to reframe or re-evaluate their emotions.

    The team drew on data from 120 undergraduate students who participated in the Duke Neurogenetics Study. Each participant completed a series of mental health questionnaires and underwent a type of non-invasive brain scan called functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) while engaged in tasks meant to activate specific regions of the brain.

    The researchers asked each participant to answer simple memory-based math problems to stimulate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Participants also viewed angry or scared faces to activate a region of the brain called the amygdala, and played a reward-based guessing game to stimulate activity in the brain’s ventral striatum.

    Scult was particularly interested in “at-risk” individuals with the combination of high threat-related activity in the amygdala and low reward-related activity in the ventral striatum. By comparing participants’ mental health assessments at the time of the brain scans, and in a follow-up occurring on average seven months later, he found that these at-risk individuals were less likely to develop anxiety if they also had high activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

    “We found that if you have a higher functioning dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the imbalance in these deeper brain structures is not expressed as changes in mood or anxiety,” Hariri said.

    The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is especially skilled at adapting to new situations, the researchers say. Individuals whose brains exhibit the at-risk signatures may be more likely to benefit from strategies that boost the brain’s dorsolateral prefrontal activity, including cognitive behavioral therapy, working memory training, or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

    But, the researchers warn, the jury is still out on whether many brain-training exercises improve the overall functioning of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or only hone its ability to complete the specific task being trained. Additional studies on more diverse populations are also needed to confirm their findings.

    “We are hoping to help improve current mental health treatments by first predicting who is most at-risk so that we can intervene earlier, and second, by using these types of approaches to determine who might benefit from a given therapy,” Scult said.


  8. Study suggests hair cortisol levels predict which mothers are more likely to suffer postpartum depression

    November 19, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Granada press release:

    Researchers from the University of Granada (UGR), who belong to the Brain, Mind and Behavior Research Center (CIMCYC, from its abbreviation in Spanish) and the Faculty of Psychology, have proven that cortisol levels (a steroid hormone secreted as a response to stress) present in the hair of pregnant women during the first or third trimesters of pregnancy may indicate which of them are more likely to suffer postpartum depression.

    Their work, published in the PLoS ONE journal, showed that hair cortisol levels in women who developed postpartum depression were higher throughout pregnancy than those seen in women who hadn’t developed it, being that difference statistically more significant during the first and third trimesters.

    The UGR researchers carried out their study doing a follow-up on 44 pregnant women throughout the whole gestation period and after giving birth. Each trimester the mothers underwent a series of tests that evaluated their stress and psychopathological symptoms while simultaneously taking hair samples from which the researchers extracted the cortisol corresponding to the last three months.

    The following days after labor the researchers evaluated the mothers’ emotional state in order to assess who among them had developed postpartum depression.

    Quarterly psychopathological symptoms

    Additionally, the results of the study showed that the participants which developed postpartum depression showed higher levels of somatization during the first trimester. During the second trimester they showed higher levels of somatization, obsession-compulsion, depression and anxiety, and during the third trimester they showed higher levels of somatization and pregnancy-specific stress. Therefore, all those symptoms along with higher levels of cortisol would be indicators of a future postpartum depression.

    As María Isabel Peralta Ramírez, lead researcher of the project says, the consequences of those results are very important in the prevention of postpartum depression, “since they show that there are various altered psychological and hormonal variables throughout the whole gestation period in comparison to those women who will not suffer postpartum depression. Detecting those differences is the key to anticipate the psychological state of the mother as well as the consequences for the baby that said state could mean.”

    This study belongs to the GESTASTRESS research project, in the research excellence framework of the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness. Its primary goal has been to assess the effects of psychological stress on the mother throughout the whole gestation period as well as on birth variables, and on the baby’s stress and neurodevelopment.


  9. Study suggests optimists and happy people are healthier overall

    November 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Michigan press release:

    Research shows that optimists and happy people are healthier overall, enjoying lower blood pressure and less depression and anxiety, among other measures.

    However, data on the effect of weight and Body Mass Index on physical and mental health are rare — especially among college students, who suffer high rates of anxiety and depression and often neglect physical self-care and exercise.

    To that end, researchers from the University of Michigan and Fudan University in China set out to learn the extent to which BMI and positive outlook affect the physical and mental health of college students in China’s Fudan University.

    They found that a positive outlook and BMI both contributed significantly to good health, said Weiyun Chen, associate professor of health and fitness at the U-M School of Kinesiology.

    Researchers asked 925 students to rate four indicators of psychological well-being: hope, gratitude, life satisfaction and subjective happiness. They also calculated students’ BMI based on self-reported body weight and height. To assess physical and mental health, researchers asked students various questions about their sleep quality and how often they felt healthy, energized, worthless, fidgety, anxious or depressed.

    Chen said that taken together, the four psychological variables and BMI accounted for 41 percent of the total variance in health. Individually, subjective happiness had the most significant impact, followed by hope, and then BMI.

    By themselves, gratitude and life satisfaction didn’t influence overall health. Also, interestingly, BMI was correlated with physical and overall health, but not with hope, gratitude, life satisfaction or mental health.

    In light of the intense academic pressure Chinese college students face, especially at elite institutions like Fudan, Chen said she was surprised by how many students rated themselves happy and healthy. This could point to China’s emphasis on well-being in schools.

    “They have structured, organized physical educations classes,” Chen said. “It’s not just fitness, it’s a variety of things so you can meet different people’s needs. They realized that emphasizing only academics isn’t good for overall health, and that they needed to emphasize the wellness part.”

    These numbers might look different for college students in the U.S., where two of three adults are overweight or obese, and 17 percent of youth ages 2-19 are considered obese, according to the CDC.

    By contrast, 714 Fudan students, or 77.2 percent, were classified as normal body weight, while only 83 students were overweight, and just 5 students were obese, with 123 students considered underweight.

    “Over the past 20 years, the United States has shrunk physical education in elementary school and in college,” Chen said. “In China, especially in the past decade, they have started to emphasize physical education, and they are taking a holistic, whole person approach.”

    Chen said the findings suggest that universities should creatively design wellness programs and centers that dynamically integrate body, mind and spirit into a seamless unit.

    The study has several limitations: all students were recruited from one university, and the results cannot be generalized; the research design prevented establishing causal effects; and the study did not account for gender differences.


  10. Study indicates all forms of sexual harassment can cause psychological harm

    November 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Norwegian University of Science and Technology press release:

    Being exposed to non-physical sexual harassment can negatively affect symptoms of anxiety, depression, negative body image and low self-esteem,” say Associate Professor Mons Bendixen and Professor Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Psychology.

    This applies to derogatory sexual remarks about appearance, behaviour and sexual orientation, unwanted sexual attention, being subject to rumouring, and being shown sexually oriented images, and the like.

    The researchers posed questions about sexual harassment experienced in the previous year and received responses from almost 3,000 high school students in two separate studies. The responses paint a clear picture.

    Worst for girls

    This is not exclusively something boys do against girls. It’s just as common for boys to harass boys in these ways.

    Girls and boys are equally exposed to unpleasant or offensive non-physical sexual harassment. About 62 per cent of both sexes report that they have experienced this in the past year.

    “Teens who are harassed the most also struggle more in general. But girls generally struggle considerably more than boys, no matter the degree to which they’re being harassed in this way,” Kennair notes.

    Girls are also more negatively affected by sexual harassment than boys are,” adds Bendixen.

    Being a girl is unquestionably the most important risk factor when teens report that they struggle with anxiety, depression, negative body image or low self-esteem.

    However, non-physical sexual harassment is the second most important factor, and is more strongly associated with adolescents’ psychological well-being than being subjected to sexual coercion in the past year or sexual assault prior to that.

    Level of severity

    Bendixen and Kennair believe it’s critical to distinguish between different forms of harassment.

    They divided the types of harassment into two main groups: non-physical harassment and physically coercive sexual behaviour, such as unwanted kissing, groping, intimate touch, and intercourse. Physical sexual coercion is often characterized as sexual abuse in the literature.

    Studies usually lump these two forms of unwanted behaviour together into the same measure. This means that a derogatory comment is included in the same category as rape.

    “As far as we know, this is the first study that has distinguished between these two forms and specifically looked at the effects of non-physical sexual harassment,” says Bendixen.

    Comments that for some individuals may seem innocent enough can cause significant problems for others.

    Many factors accounted for

    Not everyone interprets slang or slurs the same way. If someone calls you a “whore” or “gay,” you may not find it offensive. For this reason, the researchers let the adolescents decide whether they perceived a given action as offensive or not, and had them only report what they did find offensive.

    The article presents data from two studies. The first study from 2007 included 1384 high school students. The second study included 1485 students and was conducted in 2013-2014. Both studies were carried out in Sør-Trøndelag county and are comparable with regard to demographic conditions.

    The results of the first study were reproduced in the second. The findings from the two studies matched each other closely.

    The researchers also took into account a number of other potentially influential factors, such as having parents who had separated or were unemployed, educational programme (vocational or general studies), sexual minority status, immigrant status, and whether they had experienced physical coercion in the past year or any sexual assaults previous to that.

    “We’ve found that sexual minorities generally reported more psychological distress,” says Bendixen. The same applied to young people with parents who are unemployed. On the other hand, students with immigrant status did not report more psychological issues. Bendixen also notes that sexual minorities did not seem to be more negatively affected by sexual harassment than their heterosexual peers.

    However, the researchers did find a clear negative effect of non-physical sexual harassment, over and beyond that of the risk factors above.

    Uncertain as to what is an effective intervention

    So what can be done to reduce behaviours that may cause such serious problems for so many?

    Kennair concedes that he doesn’t know what can help.

    “This has been studied for years and in numerous countries, but no studies have yet revealed any lasting effects of measures aimed at combating sexual harassment,” Bendixen says. “We know that attitude campaigns can change people’s attitudes to harassment, but it doesn’t result in any reduction in harassment behaviour.”

    Bendixen and Kennair want to look into this in an upcoming study. Their goal is to develop practices that reduce all forms of sexual harassment and thereby improve young people’s psychological well-being.