Childhood Bullying Causes Abnormal Inflammation with Long-Term Adverse Impact on Health

William E. Copeland, Ph.D., Expert on child and adolescent mental health research including anxiety and bullying
William E. Copeland, Ph.D.

2008 NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee William E. Copeland, Ph.D., of Duke University Medical Center, led research that helps explain why children who are bullied experience long-lasting impairments in both emotional and physical health. The study, published online on May 12th in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that childhood victims of bullying suffer greater-than-normal increases in chronic inflammation, increases that extend into adulthood.

Dr. Copeland conducted the research in collaboration with researchers from the University of Warwick, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Emory University. The international team drew upon the resources of the Great Smoky Mountains Study, a long-term study of 1,420 children initiated at Duke in 1993 by E. Jane Costello, Ph.D., and Adrian Angold, M.D., co-recipients of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation 2009 Ruane Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Research. Dr. Costello, also a 2007 NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Grantee, collaborated in the current study.

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Individual participants from the Great Smoky Mountains were interviewed throughout childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, and among other topics, were asked about their experiences with bullying. Three groups of participants were analyzed for the current study: victims of bullying, those who were bullies, and those who were both bullies and victims. Analyzing blood samples, the researchers found that levels of C-reactive protein (CPR)—a marker of low-grade systemic inflammation that when elevated is a risk factor for later cardiovascular and other diseases—were much higher in victims of childhood bullying. In fact, the CRP levels increased with the number of times the individuals were bullied.

Although CRP levels rose for all groups as they entered adulthood, young adults who had been both bullies and victims as children had CRP levels similar to those not involved in bullying, while bullies had the lowest CRP—even lower than those not involved at all in bullying.

“The only other kind of social adversity where we see this kind of long-term effect is in children who are physically abused or neglected,” Dr. Copeland told Nicholas Bakalar in an article reported on May 13th in The New York Times. “We don’t think about bullying the same way, but I’m moving toward the position that we should. This kind of social defeat is more potent and long-lasting than we previously thought.”

The researchers conclude that reducing bullying, as well as treating inflammation for those who have been bullied, may be long-term treatment strategies to both promote physical and emotional health and to lessen the risk for cardiovascular and other diseases.

Read more about this research.

Read the abstract.

Read the Times article.

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