University of Sourthern California


How Bullying is a Public Health Issue

When people think of bullying, pictures of children being taunted, teased, or physically abused by their peers likely come to mind. But more than these common manifestations of the problem, medical professionals are viewing bullying as a public health issue as well. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine recently published a report on the subject and concluded that “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” and that there are “biological and psychological consequences of peer victimization.”

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The range of emotional and psychological effects of bullying, which affect both the victims and the perpetrators, extend beyond the physical and the recognition of them has elevated bullying into a public health issue.

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

Bullying as a Medical Syndrome

Bullying has been medically “linked to a wide range of health issues, both physical and emotional symptoms,” specifically that “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.”

It is the clustering of these symptoms – that is, people affected by bullying will experience multiple symptoms at once rather than any one in isolation – that grants the appearance of a medical syndrome.

Impact on the Stress Response System

In addition to the specific and acute physical symptoms of bullying, it also alters the stress response system in the brains of those involved. These changes can impair cognitive functions and the person’s ability to self-regulate their emotions.

A recent discussion of bullying on CNN shared that children who are bullied, as well as those who bully others, are more likely to contemplate or attempt suicide and “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 has also been shown to lead to an increase in the risk of substance abuse into adulthood.

Joining the Fight

These medical symptoms and the resulting physiological changes have alerted public health officials and other health care providers to join in the fight against bullying by:

  • Contributing to community and school programs to increase the public’s awareness of bullying, which helps to promote a more respectful environment;
  • Including bullying-related probing questions in standard health screening to help identify it and its symptoms; and,
  • By treating not just the physical symptoms of bullying, but also the psychological ones like depression and anxiety that may increase the risk for self-harm, substance abuse and suicide.

For students who wish to join the fight against bullying too, the online MPH degree offered by Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California is an innovative and rigorous program that educates professionals to become the public health leaders of tomorrow. Among the available concentrations, such as Health Education and Promotion, Public Health Policy and GeoHealth, students critically examine how changes in external factors like education and socioeconomics can shape public health in local, regional, and national contexts.