Can getting bullied make you sick? Bullying is getting a lot of attention and perhaps deservedly so. Research continues to show that being bullied in childhood can have profound and long-lasting negative effects both behaviorally and relative to other health outcomes. A recent study by Bill Copeland (a psychologist who, by the way, received his PhD at UVM and was a graduate student of Jim Hudziak back in the day) and others from Duke generated some headlines by exploring a potential mechanism of these associations, namely chronic inflammation, that may connect the dots between being a bully victim and poorer health as an adult. The study was published in the journal Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
The study uses data from the Great Smoky Mountain Study (GSMS). While many primary care clinicians may have never heard of this study, the GSMS has tracked the lives of a group of children living in rural North Carolina for many years, and has been a major source of epidemiological data.
Based on child and parent report, children were divided up into the typical categories of not being associated with bullying (the biggest group), bullies, victim of bullies, and those who were both bullies and bully-victims. These subjects are now young adults and levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a known marker for how much chronic low grade inflammation a body experiences, were measured.
Across childhood and adolescence, CRP tends to rise for everyone, However, those who were bullied more often were found to have higher than expected CRP levels compared to those uninvolved in bullying. Perhaps even more unexpected, however, was that those who tended to bully others had lower CRP levels. Finally, individuals who went back and forth between being a bully and being a victim had CRP levels that were no different than those not involved with bullying.
Copeland and his coauthors concluded that chronic inflammation may be a key factor involved in the poor mental and physical health that has been well documented among victims of bullying. They hypothesized that the increased inflammation might be due to bully victims experiencing less of the anti-inflammatory effects of cortisol which can become less responsive under conditions of chronic stress.
One thing that did not fit so well in this study was that their group of bully-victims that had the same CRP levels of those uninvolved in bullying. This group, according to other published studies, often has been shown to have the worst mental and physical health of all, so one might expect that they would have had high inflammation as well.
Aside from demonstrating how the worlds of physical and mental health are so interconnected, this study provides some important insights into a possible avenue through which bullying may exert its negative effects.
To learn more about bullying you can look at the government website stopbullying.gov.
Copeland W. Childhood bullying involvement predicts low-grade systemic inflammation into adulthood. PNAS 2014;111(21):7570–7575.