How Bullying Affects Mental Health

By Kelly Burch 01/09/19

A new study examined the long-term health consequences of bullying.

teen girl being bullied by two other teen girl in school

Bullying can lead to long-term brain changes in victims and leave them at increased risk of depression, anxiety and hyperactivity, according to a new study. 

The study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, examined the brain scans of 628 teens ages 14-19 who were also asked whether or not they were bullied.  About 30 reported that they had been victims of chronic bullying, according to Medical News Today

The brain scans showed that the teens who had been chronically bullied had lower volume in two areas of their brains: the caudate and the putamen. The putamen regulates movements and can affect learning, while the caudate processes memories. The caudate is important for learning and helps individuals use past experiences to make decisions. These changes contributed to increased depression and anxiety in people who were bullied, according to Erin Burke Quinlan, a project coordinator for the study. 

“Although not classically considered relevant to anxiety, the importance of structural changes in the putamen and caudate to the development of anxiety most likely lies in their contribution to related behaviors such as reward sensitivity, motivation, conditioning, attention, and emotional processing,” she said. 

Study authors noted that while the changes occurred from bullying, earlier interventions could help prevent long-term health consequences from bullying. 

“These data suggest that the experience of chronic peer victimization during adolescence might induce psychopathology-relevant deviations from normative brain development. Early peer victimization interventions could prevent such pathological changes,” they wrote

Although previous studies have shown that bullying has long-term health implications, this is the first study to show how it affects the brain structure in victims. 

“Chronic peer victimization has long-term impacts on mental health; however, the biological mediators of this adverse relationship are unknown,” the study authors wrote.

A 2015 review published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood found that bullying can have an array of health and social consequences

“This review considers the importance of bullying as a major risk factor for poor physical and mental health and reduced adaptation to adult roles including forming lasting relationships, integrating into work and being economically independent,” the authors wrote. 

Health providers and others who work with kids should pay more attention to bullying and not accept it as normal childhood behavior, the authors wrote. 

“Bullying by peers has been mostly ignored by health professionals but should be considered as a significant risk factor and safeguarding issue,” they said.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.