Persistent Bullying Can Damage Adolescent Brains

Bullying adversely affects millions of young children and adolescents. All too often, the effects last years and sometimes, even decades. The problem is so widespread, it has been recognized as a global health challenge by the World Health Organization and The United Nations.

Bullying is defined as repeated and intentional verbal, physical, and anti-social behavior that intimidates, harms or marginalizes someone perceived as smaller, weaker, or less powerful. Among younger children, common forms of bullying include abusive language and physical harm. But this overt behavior tends to grow subtler with age. Adolescent bullies tend to routinely exclude, insult, and mock their targets. 

Among the more than 3.2 million American students who experience bullying every year, 10 to 15 percent will experience chronic bullying. Experiencing persistent peer victimization is associated with lower academic achievement, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, self-harm, and even suicidal thoughts.

So what does the adolescent brain look like after persistent bullying?

Recent adolescent brain research has focused on bullying’s impact on the brain and our stress response system. A paper published in Molecular Psychiatry showed that trauma and stress stemming from chronic bullying seems to affect the structure of the brain. 

Neuroimaging (MRI) data was collected from 682 European youths over eight years tracking adolescents to find out how bullying was associated with structural brain changes. 

Research found that participants who experienced chronic bullying had significant decreases in brain volume of two regions involved in movement and learning. Study participants also experienced higher levels of generalized anxiety. 

In these studies, “toxic” stress and the stress hormone cortisol appeared to alter brain development by impairing cognitive development. The body’s stress response – the release of cortisol — is activated when danger such as bullying is detected. Following an initial release of adrenaline, if danger (bullying) continues to be perceived, the adrenal glands continue to release cortisol into the bloodstream. The researchers are unsure of the exact mechanisms that link cortisol levels and cognitive functioning, but hypothesize that too much cortisol may have toxic effects on parts of the brain that are important for learning to occur. Depending on the child, the child’s age, and the level of stress from bullying, some of this brain change was long lasting (multiple months and even years), and some was shorter in duration.

Researchers conclude that chronic stress — such as experiencing persistent bullying — could absolutely have a negative effect on memory, cognition, sleep, appetite and other functions when continually on alert and not allowed to repair – especially in adolescents, whose brains are still growing and developing.

If your child is experiencing persistent bullying, it is important to get help with the lingering fears, depression and possible long-term brain function changes. INDY Neurofeedback can use brain mapping to determine which areas of the brain may be affected. Then, using neurofeedback, we can provide non-medical intervention to help your child become calmer, more focused, and better able to concentrate.

Have a question about bullying and the brain? Call or email us at INDY Neurofeedback.

Head Injuries and Suicide

At just 23 years old, Kelly Catlin was already an American professional racing cyclist, artist and violinist. She won a silver medal for cycling in the 2016 Summer Olympics and gold medals in the women’s team pursuit in 2016, 2017, and 2018 UCI Track Cycling World Championships. Catlin took her own life at Stanford University on March 7, 2019, following an episode of depression after suffering a concussion.

Kelly Catlin was open about her struggle to balance school with her career. But after she got into a series of cycling crashes last year, breaking her arm and suffering a concussion without realizing it, she was despondent. According to family members, she tried to keep her rigorous schedule, despite vision problems and severe headaches. She struggled to complete team workouts.

In January of 2019, Catlin tried taking her life for the first time. The suicide attempt left her with lung and heart issues, forcing her to withdraw from the 2019 Track Cycling World Championships. More angry and frustrated, a few of months later, she did commit suicide, dying from asphyxiation.

“From everything we know about concussions,” says Leanne O’Neil, owner of INDY Neurofeedback, “Catlin’s severe headaches, vision problems, and deep depression were not unusual symptoms. Unfortunately, it is also not unusual for concussions to remain undiagnosed even with presenting these dramatic symptoms, since there is presently no medical consensus for concussion diagnosis. Catlin’s concussion-related suicide has focused much needed interest and media attention on how traumatic brain injuries can affect mental health.”

According to the Neurology Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), a concussion can increase an individual’s risk of suicide twofold (LINK: Another risk for Kelly Catlin was being an elite athlete. They are also at higher risk for anxiety and depression, both of which are risk factors for suicide.

“A brain injury such as a sports concussion has the potential to impact any aspect of your brain function,” says sports medicine and concussion specialist David Kruse, M.D., a USA Gymnastics Team Physician. Common concussion function issues include visual sensitivities, trouble concentrating, and sleep disturbance, all of which can also lead to changes in personality, mental status, mood, and behavior. However, the damage a concussion causes to your brain can also aggravate pre-existing brain conditions, says Dr. Kruse.

“An athlete may have no personal history of anxiety or depression but may have a family member who struggles with the condition,” explains Dr. Kruse. “We know that mental disorders can be genetic, so that athlete is already susceptible to developing anxiety or depression. If this athlete sustained a concussion, he or she would be more predisposed to developing anxiety or depression as a symptom compared to another athlete who has no family history of the condition.”

Although we don’t know whether mental health issues were present in Catlin’s family, we do now understand that family history may explain the rapid devolvement of symptoms following concussion that Catlin experienced. Hopefully her story can help others experiencing concussion-related depression. Public awareness is crucial.

“Most people don’t realize that concussions are traumatic brain injuries,” says Dr. Kruze. “Some concussions are easily recognized, but some can be subtle and pervasive, so it’s important to educate people on how concussions can present and how they can affect all aspects of brain function.”

“We all need to take brain injuries more seriously,” says Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback.

If you or someone you know is deeply depressed or struggling with thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with someone who will provide free and confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

After you have received medical attention for a concussion, if have lingering brain trauma issues such as difficultly with memory or concentration, INDY Neurofeedback can help you retrain your brain. Call us for a free consultation.