"I would get on the bus thinking, maybe he'll stop today," Jessica explains, holding back tears as she speaks. Her words haunt me. Jessica, along with 3.2 million other kids in the United States are bullied every year.
I see this girl, Jessica. She's a high school student. Although I don't know her personally, after talking for a few minutes at the Groundlings comedy troupe in Downtown Los Angeles, I can see her smile is so genuine. It's hard to miss. She's authentic and naturally outgoing. I would want to be her friend, I thought to myself.
But the bully doesn't see that. The bully sees an opportunity to tear her down. The bully wants her to feel worthless, powerless, empty. To cry, not smile. Sticks and stones, we tell our kids, but it's easier said than done. As powerful as words are, put in the mouth of a bully they can become a lethal weapon, literally.
Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for Americans ages 15 to 24 years old. Over 16% of them strongly consider suicide, 13% turn the idea into a plan, and 8% have attempted. 80% of youth that commit suicide have depressive symptoms. Peer victimizations and bullying heavily contribute to those rates.
Enter YouTube mogul Anna Akana, who boasts 1.6 million subscribers on her YouTube Channel. Her down-to-earth, satirical videos often go viral with her signature bubbly yet spunky persona. Akana is a strong advocate for anti-bullying as she lost her sister, Kristina, to suicide from being bullied in school in 2007.
Akana and the Groundlings comedy troupe teamed up with Canon's Rebel with a Cause campaign to create a workshop for kids ages 13-17 that have been bullied. It's a three-day workshop for these students to use comedy to build confidence in themselves.
"It's all about taking the painful things you go through in life and viewing it through a funny lens. You can make fun of it, when you get to a place where you're ready to. One of the most powerful things you can do by doing that is you take the power back from the bully," Akana says.
An important note to add about this workshop is that the students are taught to use comedy to empower, not taunt. Comedy can transform the pain into acceptance. It puts the students on a personal journey to feel okay; to feel better. Akana adds, "Sometimes through doubt, you find your best stuff."
Ariane Price, an instructor at the Groundlings comedy troupe says, "Your trial and tribulations, what you may be made fun of, and your awkwardness is embraced and accepted here at Groundlings. Not laughed at but laughed with."
Akana continues to cope with her sister's suicide and often leans on her comedic outlook. "I still remember the first time I was able to make a joke about my sister's suicide. It felt so good. I was at an emotional place where I can laugh about that now and it has a little less power over me," she says.
Price adds, "It's not necessarily a joyous laugh, it's laughing at the absurdity of what you've survived."
At the end of the three-day workshop, the 10 kids each presented their individual stand-up acts about their personal experiences of being bullied in the Groundlings auditorium in front of a live audience including the kids' parents and loved ones. The show was hosted by Akana.
"To see Jennifer standing up on that stage smiling and laughing to find humor in a low situation is a beautiful thing," Akana says.
When you can find humor in pain, you're no longer the victim. You're not going around life as damaged goods, because the scars don't define you. So be stronger, be better, and always have the last laugh.