Bullying and depression

For the first time, scientists have linked inflammation in the brain with bullying.

It seems like an obvious fact that bullying can endanger the physical well-being of a child. Most of us think about bullying in terms of a stronger person or group of people that take advantage of a weaker person and use physical aggression to hurt them. The typical image is of a child with a raised fist threatening a smaller child, but bullying can also damage a child emotionally and in ways that a child has trouble coping with. Researchers have identified the actual changes in the brain that occur with bullying and other social stress that lead to depression.

The U.S. government maintains an official website, Stop Bullying, to combat bullying. It defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.” It warns that when bullying incidents occur repeatedly, “serious, lasting problems” can result.

Scientists are now unlocking some of the secrets of the brain to explore the connection between bullying and depression. Researcher Scott J. Russo is a member of the team of scientists at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, New York, who investigate the neurological causes of anxiety and depression. He and his team have published new research linking “social stress” to reactions in the brain. Social stress can include bullying, body image issues and social anxiety.

The team’s research showed that the body reacts to socially-hurtful behaviors by actually changing how the brain works. They detailed how the change happens in three stages, which can lead to depression.

First, the social stress causes inflammation in the blood stream. The barrier that protects the brain from inflammation is weakened and inflammatory substances can enter the brain. In the brain, these inflammatory substances disrupt the brain’s process of evaluating threats and rewards, causing the brain to misinterpret or over-emphasize threats. The result is that the person feels less able to cope with perceived threats.

Russo and his team suggest that this knowledge may lead to new treatments for depression, such as chemically strengthening the blood/brain barrier. While more research into the physical changes in the brain that result in depression is needed, psychologists are tackling the problem from another angle, looking for ways to reduce bullying and social stress. Al Pals: Kids Making Healthy Choices, Great Expectations and the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program are all examples of bullying interventions that have proven to reduce the incidence of bullying, especially in schools. The Olweus Program, for example, is based on creating environments with four components:

  • Warmth, positive interest and involvement from adults.
  • Firm limits on unacceptable behavior.
  • Consistent application of non-punitive, non-physical sanctions for unacceptable behavior and violation of rules.
  • Adults who act as authorities and positive role models.

These intervention programs can go a long way to keeping our children safe in schools and on the playground. Families also need to remain aware of their child’s behavior, moods and attitudes toward school and other children. Children who are bullied and children who are bullies need attention from the adults who are closest to them. Parents can be effective in helping their children be resilient to bullying and other forms of social stress.

For more information about bullying and depression, see the following articles:

Michigan State University Extension articles about bullying:

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