Dallas dermatologist Alan Menter, MD, doesn’t boast bullying-prevention superpowers, but what he does have is close enough: An eagerness to get the word out to anyone – parent or principal, psychologist or pediatrician – who can help prevent a child with psoriasis from being bullied.
Over his long career, Dr. Menter has made many calls to adults in positions of influence over children. “I’ve talked to pediatricians, and I’ve even called up schools and talked to principals to try get the bullying situation reduced to an extent where the kids can live happy, normal lives without kids taunting them.”
Dr. Menter, chief of dermatology at Baylor University in Dallas, has plenty of company. Other dermatologists are paying close attention to their youngest patients with psoriasis as researchers work to get a better handle on the bullying problem.
For this story, Dr. Menter and two other experts talked to Dermatology News about the bullying problem and how dermatologists who treat children with psoriasis can make a difference.
“We really want to identify this early on and do whatever is required to turn it around,” said Amy Paller, MD, professor of dermatology and pediatrics and chair of the department of dermatology at Northwestern University, Chicago. “These visible skin lesions can have a very significant effect on how children feel about themselves and others. When this is going on early in life, during childhood or teen years, there’s really a risk for lifelong issues.”
Dr. Menter’s interest in psoriasis and bullying began during his childhood in South Africa when he watched children bully his brother, who had the condition. “I’ve always had a great desire to improve the quality of life in psoriasis patients,” he said, and that passion grew as he worked in a day care center for children with psoriasis. “I had an opportunity to talk to children and recognize the impact that psoriasis has on them.”
Research from across the world reveals that children with psoriasis face an extraordinary burden from bullying. “They’re teased incessantly and bullied because they’ve got such a visible disease,” he said.
The introspective and depressed nature of many children with psoriasis makes the situation even more difficult, he noted, since their emotional makeup prevents them from responding easily to taunting.
The extent of the bullying problem, however, isn’t fully understood. Research into bullying and skin disorders is “very limited,” said Kelly Cordoro, MD, of the departments of dermatology and pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. “What little evidence does exist suggests that kids with visible skin disease, including psoriasis, are often bullied, and this can impact them significantly,” she said, pointing to a 2013 study that suggested those with acne, psoriasis, and atopic dermatitis are especially vulnerable (Clin Dermatol. 2013;31:66-71).
Dr. Cordoro said her patients have taught her that recurrent themes in bullying are name-calling, teasing, and social exclusion. “Kids with psoriasis may be told they look ‘disgusting’ and ‘gross’ and that others are afraid to play with them because they think they are contagious,” she said. “Kids are not invited to birthday parties, pool parties, and other group events because of the appearance of their skin.”
Sports are a special area of concern. “They don’t want to get into gym shorts, and they don’t want to engage in sports because they get hot and itchy,” Dr. Paller said. “Or people stay away from them because they think there’s something they can catch, so they’re not chosen for sports activities.”
Indeed, children with psoriasis may be left out of games like tag and contact sports because other children are afraid of touching them, Dr. Cordoro observed. “Other kids do not want to be near them. It is truly heartbreaking and derives largely from ignorance.”
What can dermatologists do? Dr. Cordoro recommends that they take time to ask their youngest patients about their lives: “Is your psoriasis affecting your friendships?” “How are things going at school?” “Do kids ask you about your psoriasis? What do you say?”
“We can identify at-risk kids this way and work with parents, schools, coaches, and counselors towards productive interventions like educational programs,” Dr. Cordoro said. “Education is the key. As kids, parents, and adults become educated, the psoriatic child is less likely to be teased and excluded. Kids with psoriasis may lack the confidence to defend themselves, and arming them with one-liners and basic educational points about their condition empowers them to address it directly.”
Dr. Paller, who is also director of the Northwestern University Skin Disease Research Center, said it’s a good idea to add questions to the usual list of queries about subjects like sleep and itching. In cases when a child is bullied, it may help to reach out to teachers and principals, and to counselors and social workers if needed, she noted.
Parents play an important role, too, Dr. Menter said, although they may be in the dark about bullying. “What I’ve learned is that kids will seldom come home and tell their parent they’ve been bullied.”
He urges both children and their parents to understand the nature of psoriasis and be open about it. “Don’t hide it,” he suggested. “Tell people that ‘I’ve got psoriasis, and it’s not contagious.’ ” And then, hopefully, the healing can begin.
Dr. Paller and Dr. Cordoro reported no relevant disclosures. Dr. Menter disclosed relationships with many pharmaceutical companies, including AbbVie, Allergan, Amgen, Boehringer Ingelheim, Eli Lilly, Merck, Novartis and Pfizer.