How Bullying Became a Public Health Issue

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The first images of bullying that likely come to mind are of children being taunted, teased, or physically abused at school, but medical professionals are increasingly coming to see bullying as more of a public health issue. A recent report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine notes, “bullying behavior is a major public health problem that demands the concerted and coordinated time and attention of parents, educators and school administrators, health care providers, policy makers, families, and others concerned with the care of children.” Additionally, there are “biological and psychological consequences of peer victimization.” Beyond the physical effects, there are very real emotional and psychological effects as well – and they affect all involved, both the victims and the perpetrators.

How Bullying Became a Public Health Issue

The Huffington Post spoke with Dr. Jorge Srabstein, medical director of the Clinic for Health Problems Related to Bullying at the Children’s National Medical Center, on the subject.

Bullying and Other Health Issues

Srabstein emphasized the following: bullying is “linked to a wide range of health issues, both physical and emotional symptoms” and “those bullied and their bullies alike complain of headaches and stomach aches, have difficulty falling asleep and fall victim to psychological symptoms, most notably depression and very significant anxiety.” These physical symptoms often appear in clusters – that is, seldom does one occur in isolation, but rather, people affected by bullying will experience multiple symptoms at once. This clustering grants the appearance of a medical syndrome.

Changes in the Stress Response System

In addition to acute physical symptoms, bullying causes changes in the stress response system in the brains of those involved. This affects cognitive functions and the ability to self-regulate emotions. According to a recent discussion of the issue on CNN, children who are bullied as well as those who bully others are more likely to contemplate or attempt suicide, “are more likely to be depressed, are at great risk for poor psychological and social outcomes, and are more likely to engage in high-risk activities such as vandalism and theft.” The associated depression and anxiety can also lead to an increased chance for substance abuse into adulthood.

These symptoms have caught the attention of public health officials and other health care providers, who are beginning to help in the fight against bullying in three main ways:

  • Contributing to community and school programs to increase awareness of bullying, which promotes a more respectful environment;
  • Identifying bullying when they recognize that it is happening through the incorporation of bullying-relatd probing questions in standard health screening; and,
  • Treating the symptoms of bullying – not just the physical ones, but the psychological symptoms like depression and anxiety that increase the risk for self-harm, substance abuse and suicide.

Wake Forest University’s online Masters of Arts in Counseling and Masters of Arts in Human Services degrees are preparing skilled compassionate counselors and human services professionals to make a positive difference in the lives of others. They equip students with the knowledge and clinical understanding to help those who need it most, such as those who are affected by bullying. The program’s school counseling option in particular will empower graduates on the front lines of elementary, middle, or high schools.