Childhood Bullying Increases The Risk Of Mental Illness In Young Adults

By Carly Bush


Pain resonates. Anyone who has ever suffered a serious physical injury, such as a broken bone, is aware of the dull, monotonous aches that sometimes linger for months and even years after the fact. When a person is in a car crash and suffers whiplash, it is common for the pain to appear a day after the incident rather than at the immediate point of impact.


If the lasting effects of physical pain are acknowledged and respected, why is the same respect not given to mental and psychological abuse? Scientists have suspected for some time that there are distinct, observable correlations between childhood bullying and mental health issues later in life.


Now, several studies have confirmed this. A study published last December in the JAMA Psychiatry journal found that eight-year-old children who were bullied were considerably more likely to develop mental health conditions requiring psychiatric treatment, compared to their peers who were not bullied.


The study, led by professor of child psychiatry Dr. Andre Sourander at a Finnish institution called the University of Turku, was one of the most extensive and lengthy of its kind, tracking children from age eight to 29. What Dr. Sourander found is troubling in light of the current rates of mental illness in young adults.


One out of every four students reports bullying during the school year. According to a report released by the Center for Disease Control in 2015, the risk of depression and other mood disorders is heightened for young adults who were bullied during their elementary, middle, and high school years.


The reasons behind this are not surprising. Bullying has been proven to lower self-esteem. Those who are bullied often carry feelings of social exclusion, alienation, and self-loathing with them into adulthood, at which point depressive disorders begin to take hold.


The stigma associated with mental illness is lifting, albeit slowly. There is still a long way to go before even the “common cold” of mental illness—clinical unipolar depression—is treated with respect, and its sufferers are not judged and ostracized.


However, with recent medical advancements, we are beginning to learn more about the basis of depressive disorders, from the environmental influences—including bullying during the formative years—to the neurobiological factors.


The interaction of hormones and neurotransmitters appear to be the most likely explanation for the development of mood disorders. Lowered levels of dopamine—the neurotransmitter associated with thought, memory, and decision-making—sap people’s energy and motivation, inhibit their ability to react quickly to external stimuli, and cause feelings of hopelessness.


Of course, these are all symptoms of very severe clinical depression. But simply giving a depressed individual a boost of dopamine isn’t necessarily enough to treat their illness.


Many modern antidepressant medications also target the Limbic Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (LHPA) axis, which regulates our appetite, circadian rhythm, sexual arousal, and rapid and automatic reactions to potentially dangerous situations.


The LHPA axis is crucial to our survival. Evolution has given us receptors that feel pain, respond to stress, and help us to make very quick decisions. Without the “stress hormone,” cortisol, we would not be able to survive something as simple as crossing a busy street, but when the brain over-produces serotonin and floods the brain with feelings of fear and stress, it creates anxiety.


Anxiety, as psychiatrists have noted, is more often than not found alongside depression. If you have one, it’s very likely that you also have the other, and when they work together, they can have severely disabling effects on your executive function and higher thinking.


Once a low mood spirals into a diagnosable case of clinical depression, decision-making and long-term planning become intensely challenging for someone with depression. In addition, they often become lethargic and unmotivated.


Scientists have found links between childhood bullying and lowered academic performance. Knowing what we know about the LHPA axis and its regulation of higher thinking, time management, and executive function, it makes sense that previously high-achieving children might start doing poorly in school.


Fortunately, bullying becomes notably less common when academic leaders and students alike take action.


Schools such as Citrus Grove Elementary School in Palm City, FL, have acknowledged the fact that bullying is a part of life for many young children. Rather than accepting this as a necessary evil, they have created inspiring videos such as “I Have a Dream” to encourage dialogue amongst their peers and their families.


In order to combat cyberbullying, other schools have flipped the script by utilizing social media as a force for good. Newton-Lee Elementary School’s NLE Explorers set up a Twitter account to spark a national discussion.


Bullying prevention programs have been proven to decrease bullying by up to 25%, according to one 2013 report. This is good news for today’s kids. But what about adults whose schools did not promote anti-bullying rhetoric? How are they faring today?


It’s true that some have developed mental illness. Some young lives have been lost. But remarkably, there are many stories of love and healing, stories about formerly ostracized children who are now competent, empowered, and successful adults. They have faced challenges, and come out on the other side with a stronger sense of self-worth.


It may seem difficult to find the silver lining in a lifetime of harassment; such things cannot be easily forgotten once a student graduates and enters the real world. During the formative years, the brain is highly malleable.


But for every story with a tragic ending, there are several more with encouraging and hopeful messages. This is why it is crucial that parents and educators alike are morally obligated to take this issue seriously, starting at the elementary school level.


Teachers can intervene when they witness bullying taking place, and take steps to ensure that no child is being intentionally left out. Parents can teach their children the importance of inclusion, compassion, and acceptance. Since kindness starts a chain reaction, children who stand up against acts of exclusion, taunting, and mockery will help to create a more positive environment for everyone.

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