Can Bullying and Name Calling Really Make Youth Sick?

By — Bullying Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Apr 19, 2011

Research with youth and adults shows that negative social interactions are experienced as particularly stressful. Stress causes the body to secrete the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol impairs immune system functioning, leaving the individual more vulnerable and less able to combat physical illnesses (1, 2).

Is There a Connection Between Bullying and Health?

The connection between social stress, such as bullying and health has been observed for some time by school nurses and other health professionals who regularly come into contact with youth in the context of schools. Children who are bullied are more likely to report experiencing migraine and non-migraine headaches than are their non-bullied counterparts (3). Colleagues and I have found that  students who get picked on frequently also miss more school because of both excused and  unexcused absences (4, 5).           

Evidence for an association between bullying and physical complaints has now been documented in different age groups (elementary to high school) and countries (e.g., Australia, Finland, United Kingdom, United States) (3, 5, 7, 8).

Recent Studies

In two recent studies, colleagues and I examined whether bullying was related to physical symptoms on a day-to-day basis and over the course of a school year.

  • In the first study, I asked a group of 150 ethnically diverse sixth graders about their current symptoms (i.e.,"how are you feeling right now?") and also whether they had been picked on earlier that day or not (5, 6). Students answered these questions at the end of five randomly-selected school days. In order to make sure that their answer about being bullied did not influence how they were currently feeling, I asked students to report on their symptoms before they indicated whether they had been picked on that day. For physical symptoms, students indicated how much they were currently feeling "sick," "have a cough," "have a sore throat," "have a stuffy nose," "have a headache," and "have a stomachache." If a student said he or she had been bullied that day, I asked them to describe what had happened (e.g., called a name, put down, threatened, physically bullied, excluded, had a rumor spread about them, etc.). What happened on a day that a student experienced bullying compared to a day in which he or she did not experience bullying? On days that students reported getting personally picked on, they also reported increased physical symptoms of the sort described above. And this increase in physical symptoms was even stronger if the student said that he or she got picked on frequently at school (e.g., several times a week). Thus, within a given school day, students were feeling sick when they got bullied earlier in the day.
  • In a second study, the association between bullying and physical health was examined over the course of an academic school year (5). The sample for this study was approximately 1500 urban public middle school students from ethnically diverse backgrounds. In fall semester, colleagues and I asked students how often they were bullied at school and in spring semester, we asked them about both psychological well-being (depression,,anxiety, loneliness, and low self-worth) and physical symptoms (e.g., "sore throat/coughs," "upset stomach, nausea"). We also looked at their academic performance and attendance in school at the end of spring semester. These results were similar to the study described above. More frequent bullying experiences were associated with poorer psychological and physical well-being. That is, students who reported getting bullied reported feeling/getting sick more often later in the school year. They also reported feeling more depressed, anxious, and lonely, and lower self-worth.
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