[featured in the American Association of Suicidology's student newsletter, June 2012] Lee Hirsch’s documentary Bully is a heartbreaking and necessary film that illustrates the impact childhood bullying has on individuals, families, and communities. Hirsch follows the personal stories of three different teenagers, revealing their painful daily struggles with mental and physical abuse from their peers. These images are both disheartening and provocative, inspiring profound empathy for these characters and frustration toward a system that seems unwilling to help their plight.
Hirsch was inspired by his own childhood experiences being bullied, and used his film to give kids and parents a voice to talk about their experiences. “Bullying is something that your generation and my generation of folks didn't think about, didn't talk about,” he told NPR’s Robert Siegel. “It was wrapped with shame, it was wrapped with silence.”
That statement, coincidentally, could also apply to suicide, a subject that plays a large role in Hirsch’s narrative. The film opens with the tragic story of 17-year-old Tyler Long’s 2009 suicide. Hirsch interviews Long’s parents, who talk about their son’s childhood and his longtime struggle with bullying—the catalyst, they believe, that led to his untimely death. “We know why Tyler did what he did,” his father says. “It was the mental abuse and not-so-physical abuse that Tyler endured.” Long’s suicide is a prominent storyline throughout the film, along with the suicide of 11-year-old Ty Smalley, whose death inspired Stand For The Silent—a program through which Ty’s parents educate students about the effects of bullying and what they can do to help end the silent epidemic.
These cultural connections between suicide and bullying are not uncommon. Bullying has received a lot of attention recently in relation to adolescent suicide, especially in the case of LGBT youth. Bully relies heavily on this cause-and-effect relationship to bolster its anti-bullying agenda. The documentary’s message seems to be: bullying is bad because it can have fatal repercussions. While this may be true, Hirsch neglects to address other factors that may have been present in the two suicides he references—namely depression and Asperger’s syndrome—thereby oversimplifying suicide and the variety of circumstances that can lead to self-inflicted death.
This perspective is a bit cursory and a whole lot potentially hazardous. The film repeatedly implies that suicide was the single reason anyone “took notice” of the bullying issue, and that it requires something as extreme as a suicide to affect change. These presumptions could lead Hirsch’s intended adolescent audience to believe that suicide is the direct and ultimate result of bullying, a way to get noticed, and a way to solve the problem.
Various scholarly studies have established a link between bullying and adolescent suicide, but not without acknowledging that bullying first inspires anxiety, depression, and aggression amongst its victims. Hirsch’s film shows this, but neglects to say it—a technique that may communicate the reality to adults but would likely slip under a teenager’s radar. The most telling moment might be when Alex, a 13-year-old boy who is relentlessly abused by his peers, talks to his mother about his classmates. She asks if it makes him feel good when they punch or kick or stab him.
“Well, I don’t know,” he responds. “I’m starting to think I don’t feel anything anymore.”
A statement like that should pave the way for a discussion about depression, but the film avoids the topic, despite many obvious indications.
Bullying is clearly a serious and under-represented issue that deserves attention and respect. Hirsch’s intentions are admirable, and the film will likely educate a variety of people about the severity of this issue, with which adolescent suicide is legitimately bound. Bullying was likely one of many factors in these suicides, and turning a tragedy into an educational tool is not a bad impulse—one often used within suicide prevention—but doing so without taking into account all of the factors is disadvantageous and, at worst, harmful. On the upside, two of the characters’ stories end on uplifting conclusions, leaving the audience with some hope. Overall, the film carries an optimistic message: kids should rally together against bullying, stand up for themselves, and support each other. Hopefully this message speaks the loudest and inspires the positive change this film can achieve.