Bullying's Psychological Impact

Most healthcare professionals and any parent of a kid who is bullied can tell you that the stress can have a profound psychological effect.

The school bus unceremoniously began cruising our cul-de-sac this week, picking up children who attend public school here in Georgia. On the way to work in the morning, parents can be seen once again standing with their kids at the bus stop.

I personally never rode the bus to school - I grew up in suburban America in the 1960’s when it was still safe to walk a couple of miles to school and home again in the afternoon. So I never put much thought into the bus ride to and from the school, always assuming that kids could stay out of trouble long enough for the short ride to the school grounds. These assumptions were wrong on several counts, of course, but it was shocking to our community several years ago when an elementary age boy was struck in the head by a bully as he was leaving the bus. The blow was fatal.

Bullying is not new in kids, and most of us are well aware, is a phenomenon that carries over into adulthood. I’ve seen it over and over again in the workplace, where I had come to make another assumption: many bullies aren’t perpetrators out of pain or ignorance; they are just plain mean people. I’m probably not alone when I say that I don’t give the bully’s welfare much consideration in a bullying situation.

A recent study out of Yale by Young-Shin Kim, MD, and Bennett Leventhal, MD, suggests that attitude is wrong. Most healthcare professionals and any parent of a kid who is bullied can tell you that the stress can have a profound psychological effect — those who are bullied are many times more likely to have suicidal thoughts. What we weren’t aware of is that bullies themselves may also be at increased risk of suicide.

This finding came from an analysis that included data from 37 studies conducted in various countries across North America, Europe, and Asia, and all of which addressed bullying and suicidal behavior in children and adolescents. It’s published in a special issue on bullying in the International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health.

I bring this up now because not only is bullying a phenomenon that takes place across cultures, but because we Americans tend to not take it seriously enough. Mental health at this point in time is just not our forte. Even when bullying does not result in a community disaster, it may well have a long-lived affects in individuals, and this is no small consideration when up to half of children may be exposed to bullying at some point. And it’s definitely a phenomenon we are far from understanding.

Schools are trying to address the problem, but obviously that buck cannot stop there. Does your practice regularly screen kids for socially related distress? What do you think the role of the pediatrician should be in screening kids for potential signs of bullying, educating parents about bullying and their role in intervention?