Bullying is not just a rite of passage. It is not something that people need to “get over” or “man up” for. It turns out that sticks and stones may break my bones but words can permanently damage my development and cognitive function. Over the past few years, bullying has been increasingly in the spotlight. Studies have shown that bullying, both as a teenager and as an adult, can have severe and long-lasting effects, both psychologically and physically.
When I thought about writing this entry, I kept thinking that everyone knows how destructive bullying can be psychologically, but I also kept having the nagging feeling that the sentence is very wrong. Surely people can’t know just how devastating it is psychologically and continue to participate in it or watch it happen. Isn’t it common knowledge that bullying can cause PTSD, greater degrees of depression, increased risk of suicide and greater risk for later criminal behavior such as substance abuse and domestic violence? No, it’s not. But what is more important to me today is how very little people think about the link between verbal bullying, or verbal abuse, and real, long-lasting physical damage.
In fact, a new group of studies into bullying have examined the physiological effects of bullying. Even “mere” verbal bullying, it turns out, can cause damage similar to that caused by childhood physical and sexual abuse. Being bullied, both as a child and an adult, can throw a victim’s hormones out of whack. This is especially important in teenagers, because the brain is still developing. The hormonal imbalance can cause reduced connectivity in a teenager’s brain and even sabotage the growth of new neurons. In his research at McLean Hospital in Belmont, neuroscientist Martin Teicher found that adolescents who reported bullying (but had no history of verbal or physical abuse at home) had observable abnormalities in a part of the brain known as the corpus callosum — a thick bundle of fibers that connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and which is vital in visual processing, memory, and more. The neurons in their corpus callosums had less myelin, a coating that speeds communication between the cells — vital in an organ like the brain where milliseconds matter.” ("Inside the Bullied Brain" published in The Boston Globe, November 28, 2010. Link below)
Teichert is not alone in his findings. Another study out of the University of Ottowa, conducted by Tracy Vaillancourt, has demonstrated that victims of bullying have increased levels of the stress hormone, Cortisol, which can weaken the functioning of the immune system, and at high levels can damage and even kill neurons in the hippocampus, impacting brain function. Vaillancourt’s research suggests damage to memory function. She will be investigating structural damage to the hippocampus, largely believed to be the physical location where information is converted from short -term to long-term memory and governs spacial navigation.
The courts of the United States do not abide the intentional or negligent infliction of either emotional pain or physical damage on another. This concept is the bedrock of personal injury law. I have seen the renewed sense of self-esteem and self-direction in victims of bullying who have taken their power back through the courts, where brawn and strength do not overcome the power of what is right and just. If you, or someone you live, is the victim of bullying, I hope that you will consider taking the next step in reclaiming control. It’s just that the person who causes physical or emotional damage to a person be held responsible for the treatment and recovery from that injury.
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