Why does bullying hurt so much?

Everyone knows that bullying can cause emotional scars as well as physical ones. But the damage can go even deeper and have a wider range of impacts than intuition might suggest. In fact, bullying behaviour can “get under the skin,” affecting the very way our genes behave.

Psychologist and children’s mental health expert Tracy Vaillancourt studies how the stress of being bullied places children at risk for mental and physical health problems.

“I am interested in how this kind of stress may change the person’s stress response system in ways that make them vulnerable to future illness,” she says. “My work highlights the invisible scars of bullying and challenges the erroneous assumption that bullying is not a serious threat to health and wellbeing.”

Bullying can happen to people of any age, but it has particular effects on younger people, whose neurological and other systems are still developing. Stress during these critical times can affect everything from overall cognitive ability to predisposition toward a wide range of gene-related medical conditions.

In addition to seeking better understanding the mechanisms of these stress effects, Vaillancourt is also interested in how this knowledge can be applied to protect young people and give them the best possible health outcomes.

“The United States’ Institute of Medicine and National Research Council of The National Academy of Sciences are currently forming a consensus committee to explore the state of knowledge about the neurobiology of bullying,” she says. “I would love to see similar a similar effort here in Canada.”

Bullying, she says is a major social issue, but also a major health concern.

“Exposure to violence, including bullying, needs to be dramatically reduced. Bullying causes harm to the developing person, which places them at risk for poor health well into the future,” she says. “The reduction, and ideally the prevention of bullying is a public health concern that should be a top priority.”

Tracy Vaillancourt

Tracy Vaillancourt

University of Ottawa

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