By April Garbuz, Wilton High School
Emotional problems triggered by bullying may be a result of more than playground bullies; studies suggest that genes make kids more sensitive to these emotional effects. Psychologist Karen Sugden’s studies have found that symptoms of anxiety, depression, and social withdrawal appear most often in regularly bullied kids who have two copies of the short allele of serotonin transport protein 5-HTT. Serotonin has been shown to reduce the level of stress hormones in stress-provoking situations. The short allele of protein 5-HTT is found in about half of Caucasians and even a single copy of the shortened 5-HTT gene appears to make its carriers more susceptible to stress-induced depression.
Other evidence, by Stanford University psychologist Ian Gotlib, implies that the short form of the gene exaggerates emotional reactions to stress by triggering the release of high levels of stress hormones. Gotlib reported that teenage girls with social distress only show signs of depression if they have two copies of the short 5-HTT gene.
According to these studies, one third of bullied children with two shorter alleles showed emotional distress at levels severe enough to require mental health treatment. While 29% of bullied kids carrying one short and one long allele had distress at this level, and 15% carrying two long alleles showed this amount of distress. Scientific proof of genetic vulnerability allows schools to provide the greatest emotional benefits to vulnerable children, but this research has not yet led to focusing on these children for specific school interventions.