Bully, a new documentary film by Lee Hirsch and Cynthia Lowen, is intimate, human, honest, and gorgeously scored—all the trappings of a good movie. But Bully’s passionate yet well-crafted social message – a plea to end bullying and improve millions of lives in the process – makes it truly great, and possibly the most important film of the year.
The movie portrays kids and families across the country whose lives have been irrevocably altered by bullying. A girl and her parents have been shunned and abused ever since she came out as a lesbian. A boy has convinced himself that the kids who punch, stab, and strangle him daily on the school bus do it because they are his “friends.” Another girl is charged with multiple felony counts after brandishing a gun in hopes of scaring off her tormentors. Two sets of parents try to cope after losing their sons, ages 17 and 11, to suicide. And there are millions more stories like these—13 million kids are bullied in the United States each year.
A recent Ohio State University study links bullying and substance abuse: “Youth involved in bullying were more likely than students not involved in bullying to use substances, with bully-victims reporting the greatest levels of substance use.” To anyone who has been subject to or witnessed bullying, this comes as no surprise; a drug-induced fog would seem a welcome reprieve from the pain of daily torment. The study’s more surprising finding is that bullies are also likely to abuse drugs. And then there’s the fact that those who are victims of bullying often end up bullying others: “they go so far that I want to become the bully,” explains Alex, a young man featured in the film.
So bullying causes substance abuse, which causes bullying, which causes substance abuse. Bullying victims turn into bullies who create more bullying victims and thus more bullies. It’s a vicious cycle of the worst kind. So why do adults continue to turn a blind eye? While watching the film, I felt tremendous disappointment that so little has changed since I was in middle school 15 years ago. The school bus is still a war zone, putting “nerds” inside lockers is still considered an appropriate pastime, and the strong still prey on the weak (and the chubby, and the gay…the list goes on). School officials and even parents still shrug off abuses with a plethora of clichéd excuses: “kids will be kids,” “they’re just playing,” “words don’t hurt anyone,” “it’s not a big deal.” Not a big deal? Then why couldn’t that 11-year-old boy bear to live through the sixth grade? Why was the first funeral I ever attended not for a grandparent but for a quiet classmate who took his own life at age 16?
When we at Phoenix House advocate for an attack on “the root causes of substance abuse,” this is exactly what we’re talking about. Banning designer drugs, monitoring prescriptions, and controlling drug supplies can only go so far when every generation of bullied kids will try anything just to escape their own lives—and that includes finding, buying, or even inventing the next big drug. If addiction can be controlled (and it can), then we can certainly also find a way to control bullying.
Despite its tragic beginnings, Bully ends on an optimistic note, with folks across the country rallying to protest bullying and to support each other. The kids, families, and filmmakers are hurt but hopeful—hopeful because this is a fight we can win. We can win it by talking to kids, educating them, and creating change from the ground up. We can win it by showing this film and sharing the stories of these kids and the countless others who are bullied every day. We can win it by intervening, by no longer turning a blind eye to bullying. By doing so we’ll not only end bullying; we’ll also eliminate a root cause that leads so many kids to abuse drugs and alcohol. As the film says, “maybe all it takes is for one person to stand up”—and that person could be you.
To learn more about The Bully Project and to find out how you can help, click here.
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