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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Letters to the Editor

Faculty letter: Bullies a public health concern

Samina Salim

UH pharmacology professor Samina Salim labeled bullying as a potentially major public health concern. | Courtesy of Samina Salim

The word “bully” is often used casually by some but for others the word weighs heavy. Ask a family member or a friend of a bullying victim, who was pushed to the edge and compelled to do the drastic. 

Bullies are an assortment of people and countries; some are openly aggressive while others camouflage it well. Whether it is countries or people — men, women, or children — the underlying feature seems to be an unfulfilled ego and perhaps deeply personal insecurities. 

What is truly shocking, however,  is the extent to which this behavior is condoned by society under the belief that bullies go away if ignored. In fact, bullies do not go away, nor do they give up or stop if ignored. They move from one victim to another, creating new ways to satisfy their insecurities while forging new rationales to justify their twisted ambitions. 

Countries that practice bullying justify their aggression under the banner of national security and global interests. Employers and bosses justify their aggression in the name of productivity and accountability, often exercising their bullying tricks as a soft skill or a tool to get the job done or to use it for their own career advancement or to pursue their discriminative agenda. Kids engage in bullying seeking popularity. Bullying within social networks is a status clash; within families, it is patriarchy or power play. 

Regardless of the intent, bullies are found everywhere. They are in our homes, at school, at work, in government and in our social circles. Some are aggressive, others are passive. There is a good chance that all of us have encountered a few bullies in our lives. I have had my share.

I believe bullies are a product of their insecurities and a victim of their own manipulations. Consumed by their own negativity they are limited in their impact, but my encounters have changed my perspective drastically and I have begun to think about bullying as a disorder — a serious pathophysiology which needs the attention of neuroscientists, psychologists and neurobehaviorists. 

Looking into the literature, several important studies caught my attention. One study specifically struck a chord, Saunders et al. The study succinctly laid out the destructive aspects of bullying by stating that, “the inducement of harm is an essential and necessary component in all definitions of bullying.” Considering “harm” is core to the act of bullying, we ought to take this more seriously and consider taking into account the criminal intent of bullies as hypothesized in the Saunders study.

It is imperative we expose bullies from all sorts of insulation, disguises and camouflages often used to exercise bullying.  Perhaps this would limit the harm inflicted by the bullies on their victims. This is critical considering the adverse outcomes of bullying that have been reported in the literature. Several studies have explicitly described the negative psychological impact of bullying which includes depression, burnout, post-traumatic stress disorder, prolonged stress disorder, alcohol abuse and suicide.

Importantly, in a study conducted by Lutgen-Sandvik, the authors reported that at the highest level, bullying can be equated to a “third-degree burn” resulting in “deep scarring and permanent damage.” This is shocking to read but fully understandable. The psychological damage among burn victims and the slow healing involved is well-known. 

What is even more concerning is that the negative consequences of bullying are not limited to the direct bullying targets but also adversely impact the witnesses of bullying impacting their mental health as well. 

More needs to happen from the policy side as well as from the social and academic spaces to stop bullying, which, if not checked, will become a major public health concern.

Samina Salim is a pharmacology professor and can be reached at [email protected].

[email protected]

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