Bullying, suicidal thoughts linked to more headaches among teens

CALGARY, Alberta — Anguish and anxiety often have a way of manifesting themselves in unexpected ways. Now, new research out of Canada is highlighting how outside factors may contribute to teenage headaches. Researchers from the University of Calgary report that bullied teens, or those who have considered or attempted suicide, may be more likely to experience more frequent headaches in comparison to other adolescents who haven’t had those experiences.

To be clear, researchers say this work does not prove that bullying or thoughts of suicide cause headaches, it only shows an association.

“Headaches are a common problem for teenagers, but our study looked beyond the biological factors to also consider the psychological and social factors that are associated with headaches,” says study author Serena L. Orr, MD, MSc, of the University of Calgary in Canada, in a media release. “Our findings suggest that bullying and attempting or considering suicide may be linked to frequent headaches in teenagers, independent of mood and anxiety disorders.”

This project encompassed over 2.2 million teens with an average age of 14. Among all these adolescents, 0.5 percent self-reported being gender diverse, which refers to being transgender or self-reporting as being gender diverse, including being gender nonbinary.

The teens filled out surveys asking about their headaches. More specifically, participants were asked if they had headaches in the past six months and at which frequency; rarely or never, about once a month, about once a week, more than once a week, or most days. Everyone also answered questions pertaining to mental health, including mood or anxiety disorder diagnoses.

Additionally, participants were asked if they had been bullied over the past year, and if they were, at which frequency. Finally, the teens were asked whether they had suicidal thoughts in the past year, as well as if they had ever attempted suicide during their lifetime.

Among this group, 11 percent reported having frequent, recurring headaches, defined as headaches occurring more than once weekly. One in four (25%) reported being victims of frequent overt bullying, including physical and verbal aggression, being called names or insulted, and being threatened virtually. Another 17 percent said they had been victims of frequent relational bullying, including having rumors spread about them, being excluded from social gatherings, and having harmful information posted about them on the internet. Another 17 percent said they had considered or attempted suicide in their lifetime.

Teens bullying student
(© motortion – stock.adobe.com)

This led to the conclusion that those who had frequent headaches were nearly three times more likely to deal with bullying. Teens who had been bullied or had suicidal tendencies were also nearly twice as likely to have frequent headaches as their peers. Those with mood disorders were 50 percent more likely to have frequent headaches, and those with anxiety disorders were 74 percent more likely.

Also, the study authors note 34 percent of teens with frequent headaches reported being victims of relational bullying at least once a month compared to just 14 percent of teens who had headaches less than once weekly. Meanwhile, 34 percent of teens with frequent headaches had made one or more suicide attempts or had suicidal thoughts in comparison to 14 percent of teens with headaches less than once a week.

Notably, after accounting for age and sex, researchers say that teenagers who reported being gender diverse were more likely to have frequent headaches. However, that link disappeared after adjusting for additional factors such as being bullied or having a diagnosed mood or anxiety disorder.

“Though gender diverse teens appear to have a higher risk of frequent, recurring headaches, this association disappears after controlling for bullying, anxiety, depression, and suicidal tendencies, suggesting that perhaps gender diversity is not, in and of itself, related to frequent headaches, but that the psychosocial factors associated with it may explain this link,” Orr explains. “This is important information because these factors are preventable and treatable, and as such, must be examined further.”

“These results should compel future research into interventions for bullying and a better understanding of how gender diverse youth are at a higher risk of headache disorders,” Orr concludes. “These findings should urge policymakers to increase efforts towards bullying prevention and should encourage doctors to screen children and teens with headache disorders for bullying and suicidal tendencies.”

The team notes this project had limitations because participants self-reported their headache occurrences and other information, and thus may not have remembered all the data accurately.

The study is published in the journal Neurology.

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