Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 11:14:52 AM CST

Top Stories

Elise Byun/Medill

Justin Salomon, 18, jumps through a hula hoop during Tae Kwon Do warm ups.

Bully trauma hurts into adulthood, study shows

by Elise Byun
June 03, 2014


Elise Byun/Medill

Black belt students at Chang's Martial Arts Academy stretch before class begins.


Elise Byun/Medill

Roger Park gives an anti-bully seminar during one of his Tae Kwon Do classes.


Elise Byun/Medill

Ishtar Sheno, 15, listens during an anti-bully seminar at Chang's Martial Arts Academy.


Elise Byun/Medill


2013 bullying frequency statistics from Click to enlarge.


Elise Byun/Medill

2013 U.S. middle school bullying statistics from Click to enlarge.

Elise Byun/Medill

Chang's Martial Arts Academy focuses on self-defense and teaches students how to stand up to bullies for themselves and others.

Bullying hurts—for a long time. Bullied children might encounter long-term physical health effects into adulthood, a new study shows. Heart disease and digestive problems can assault people years later, a Duke University study shows.

Over a span of 20 years, study researchers interviewed and collected blood samples of 1,420 participants. Those who were bullied as children had “significantly higher” levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a protein found in blood. It serves as an indicator- or “marker”- of low-grade inflammation, according to Dr. William Copeland, associate professor at Duke University School of Medicine and one of the researchers of the study.

“Low-grade increases in inflammation markers predict age-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome,” said Copeland. “Folks in their early 20s are very healthy, so higher levels of CRP may tell us something about their health risk later in adulthood.”

“All subjects regardless of bullying involvement showed increases into early adulthood,” Copeland said. “Victims of bullying showed the greatest increases – increases that were significantly higher than those not involved in bullying. Bully-victims were not significantly different from those uninvolved in bullying. But interestingly, bullies had the lowest levels of CRP in adulthood.

Researchers accounted for pre-existing conditions and hardships that could contribute to CRP level changes. Even then they found that bullies had the lowest increase in CRP levels and victims had the highest increase.

Researchers at Duke University Medical Center, University of Warwick, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Emory University worked together to conduct the two studies.

“Participants were ages 9, 11 and 13 at intake and then they were interviewed every year until age 16, then again at age 19 and 21,” Copeland said. “We are currently interviewing them now at age 30.”

Dr. Kathleen Rospenda, associate professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, also found that there are mental health effects of bullying. Her study is focused on adults in the workplace.

“We’ve found in various studies of employed adults that bullying invariably is associated with increased problems of alcohol use, such as binge drinking, intoxication and signs of alcohol abuse or dependence along with increased depression, anxiety and feelings of anger,” Rospenda said.

Like Copeland’s study, Rospenda accounted for pre-existing conditions and qualities such as neuroticism and pessimism. “Our results still hold even when accounting for such psychological characteristics,” Rospenda said.

Because bullying is usually targeted at one person, it is an “unexpected form of stress,” Rospenda said. Unlike normal life or job stressors such as working overtime or a boss’s high expectations, victims may blame themselves for bullying, adding to the stress, Rospenda said. That’s why she believes that bullying has stronger negative effects on a person’s mental and physical health, she said.

Kids who are bullied often feel that they did something wrong, too, said bully expert Roger Park. Park, a martial arts instructor in Morton Grove, took an online course at The course teaches verbal self-defense and anti-bullying methodology. Park incorporates an anti-bully seminar at his dojo, Chang’s Tae Kwon Do Academy, every year.

Park was bullied as a kid, verbally and physically, from third grade to fifth grade. There really are mental and physical health effects, according to Park.

“I took so much of that pain in,” Park said. “There were times I couldn’t sleep. I had headaches, stomachache, dizziness, and nausea. The list goes on.”

To avoid being bullied, Park became a bully in sixth grade. Even though he transformed outwardly, he said he still felt the fear and anxiety he felt as a victim. By high school, he stopped bullying. 

Not every victim of bullying experienced physical health effects.

“I wasn’t often sick,” said Eileen Sonu, administrative coordinator at GRIP Outreach for Youth in Chicago, was bullied in eighth grade until junior year of high school. “I was more prone to telling my mom I don’t want to go to school.”

Sonu, who is Chinese American, grew up in the Alpharetta, Ga., where there weren’t many Asian Americans. Sonu was bullied by non-Asians as well as Asian Americans.

“In eighth grade I was bullied by Korean girls because I hung out with white people,” Sonu said. “I got hate letters in my lockers.”

“In high school the guys would be really racist but then they would also be very perverse,” Sonu said. “One time I told the coach, ‘The guys are being really mean to me,’ and he said, ‘Boys will be boys.’ And that was that. Nothing really came out of it.”

Sonu came up with a way to protect herself, in a way, from the racist remarks and bullying. “If I was going to be the exotic Asian girl, then that’s who I was going to be,” Sonu said. “If I knew I was playing that card then I wasn’t going to be bullied for it.”

One instance she remembers in particular was the first day of her senior year of high school. “I wore this gold-ish looking tank top and black flared pants and those black chokers that look tribal. My hair was pin straight,” Sonu said. “And one of my white friends said, ‘You look like you’re ready to go to the club.’ And I thought, ‘Perfect. That’s what I was going for.’”

Adopting the persona others placed on her helped her to deflect the pain it could have caused otherwise.

Sonu said she doesn’t think being bullied all those years affected how she views herself now as an adult.

“For the most part it doesn’t bother me anymore,” Sonu said. “I can definitely attribute it to being from the South and it was a different time.”

Rospenda said she and other researchers haven’t found anything “definitive” that protects against bullying but has some suggestions for bully victims.

•    Seek help from a professional to help manage stress.
•    Remind yourself that the bullying is not a result of something you did. It is not your fault.
•    If you feel comfortable, confront the bully or report the bully to a higher up.
•    Look for a support group. Talk to friends and family who will remind you not to blame yourself and validate that your experience as a victim is not ok.

“For a long time, I considered [bullying] a negative experience that caused a lot of short-term distress,” Copeland said. “But increasingly, I see it more and more the way that I view family maltreatment and abuse, as one of the few early experiences that can leave scars that continue to affect functioning decades after it occurs.”