About half an hour ago, I clicked Netflix off and sobbed like a baby.
Have you heard of 13 Reasons Why? The Netflix original series is a revenge fantasy orchestrated by a suicidal teen. Through the thirteen tapes she recorded before her death, Hannah gets revenge on the individuals she considers the “reasons” she committed suicide. In the end, the dead girl apparently wins because everyone gets what they deserve. The only problem is that she’s not there to enjoy it, because suicide is a permanent solution to temporary (but certainly not trivial) problems. But the directors forgot to include that.
If that’s not enough, know that 13 Reasons Why includes bullying, two violent and graphic depictions of rape, and a gruesome suicide scene where a beautiful young girl slices through her wrists with razors stolen from her parents’ store. I should also mention the rampant use of profanity, the almost constant drug and alcohol abuse, and the teachers who look the other way.
And know that your teenagers have probably already seen it. The show debuted March 31st, yet only a week ago I’d never heard of it. Several of my friends with teenagers told me that, unbeknownst to them, their kids had watched it. Since we can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, you should know what they’ve seen and why they can’t turn it off.
But should parents watch it? One acquaintance has considered doing so with her kids (ages 11 and 13) and using it as a reason to talk about suicide. Dr. David Henderson, a board certified psychiatrist with the Four Stones Group in Dallas, advises against it.
“Parents need to have conversations with their kids before they would let them watch a show that depicts such intense subject matters. Too often I think Hollywood runs rampant with these kinds of themes, and they are not concerned about your kids. They don’t care about the impressions necessarily that are being left on the minds and the hearts of our teenagers, and so, if you’re not the ones having these deep conversations, you’re really leaving it up to a society and an industry that’s all about ratings, sales, and the bottom line in terms of the dollar amount that they’re making.”
In other words, talk about suicide, but don’t use the series as a springboard.
Julia Sadler, a licensed professional counselor who regularly speaks to schools about suicide prevention, cites frightening statistics on her blog. “If one in six women are sexually abused and 5,000 teenagers in the United States attempt suicide daily, then there are a lot of Hannah Bakers out there.” Sadler confesses that, after viewing the series, she was not prepared for “the overwhelming accuracy of this show.”
Sadly, she echoes my sentiments. Too many scenes mirrored my own high school experience almost twenty-five years ago—the parties, the pressure, the substance abuse, and yes, the sexual assault. These are real stories, even if the people are fictitious. Our teens are finding themselves in the characters, and the series, albeit unwittingly, presents suicide as an effective form of revenge.
Take it seriously
Suicide is the number two cause of death, behind motor vehicle accidents, for males and females ages 10–24. The Jason Foundation, listing statistics released in 2015 from the CDC, says, “More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined.” An article posted in April of 2016 states that “while other causes of death are on the decline, suicide just keeps climbing.” Most alarming is the trend among adolescent girls, ages 10–14, tripling over the last fifteen years. Overall, between 1994 and 2014, the rate of suicide has shot up twenty-four percent, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Another article from 2013 from the American Psychological Association says that, for every completed suicide, there are twenty-five attempts. What is a parent to do?
The APA says we can teach our children problem-solving and conflict resolution skills. We can pour into our children, making sure that the family bonds are strong. Create a culture that welcomes confession and extends grace. Have open conversations often, and monitor their smartphones and their social media use.
Several school districts in North Texas, including the Denton, Celina, and Krum ISDs, have already sent letters home to parents warning them about the content of 13 Reasons Why. If you have a middle or high school student, you need to start a dialogue. When I spoke to Sadler on the phone, she stressed the importance of a comfortable climate.
“Don’t get angry with your kids for watching it, and do not punish them. Ask questions, like, ‘Why did you watch it? What did you connect with?’” She recommends approaching the discussion in the spirit of curiosity, not panic or fear.
Ashley Ward, a crisis counselor in a North Texas school district, adds, “Teenagers are infamously influenced by their peers, and if we are not talking about it, know that their peers are. This is such a serious issue among our young people with the direst of consequences. We must make every effort to build relationships with our teens that allow for these conversations.”
Talks like this are most successful in the car or on a walk, when your child doesn’t have to meet your eyes. Do they relate to one of the characters or situations in the show? Empathize by sharing your own experiences. Who among us has escaped the silent treatment or various levels of bullying?
Sadler also recommends preparing yourself for what you hear. “Most people have no idea that their child has been raped or bullied. Save any kind of judgment and don’t give direction right away. Make it less about you and more about them.”
Know the signs
Sadler recalls a friend in youth group who ended her life. Although she couldn’t see the signs, as a licensed counselor now, she says they were almost ripped from a textbook.
“Changing interests, for instance, if they loved to play the drums and suddenly want nothing to do with it anymore. Also reckless or risky behavior, giving possessions away, and a sense of hopelessness.”
Sadler explains how some of the signs seem counterintuitive: “Oftentimes, when teens are really serious about suicide, you’ll see their mood shift from a dark depression to happiness almost overnight. That happens when they make their decision. It’s like their burden has lifted.”
Ward agrees that knowing what to look for can save lives, because chances are the teen in crisis is crying out for help. “Too many times, I talk with students who have either attempted or are considering suicide, and they tell me that they don’t really want to die. They just want to go to sleep or check out for a few weeks. While they know logically that life will end if they die and can conceptualize the death of others, they have a real problem wrapping their minds around the reality and finality of their own deaths.”
The Lie Behind Suicide
“My truth” is a phrase tossed around in roughly half of the episodes. Hannah Baker killed herself because she felt worthless and unlovable. She felt dead on the inside, incapable of any emotion at all. According to one of the characters, that was her truth. In one of the last episodes, Courtney, a vicious and vindictive girl who hides the fact that she is a lesbian under a thin veneer of sweet innocence, angrily tells her classmates that she won’t tell the authorities the truth because their truth isn’t her truth. Her truth is that she’s done nothing wrong, even though she lied about Hannah, perpetuated rumors, froze the poor girl out, and covered up a rape.
Welcome to a postmodern society, where there is no ultimate truth, only her truth, his truth, your truth, and my truth. Our culture no longer differentiates between reality and perception, fact or opinion. If you feel it, it’s your truth, and no one can take that from you.
That not only defies logic, it contradicts the teachings of Scripture.
The Bible encourages us not to walk by sight or by feelings. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Our feelings are fragile and easily hurt. They twist and distort our perception, but God reminds us of the truth. Psalm 139 says that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made (v.14),” knitted together by our Heavenly Father’s hands in the dark warmth of our mother’s womb (v. 13).
Hannah’s “truth” was that she was completely alone and worthless, but Matthew records Jesus saying, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (28:20). She felt worthless, even though “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” so that all could be reconciled to Him (John 3:16). Toward the end of the series, Hannah is convinced that the world would be a better place without her, even though Scripture assures us that each of us has a role in God’s plan (Ephesians 2:10).
We must teach our children that feelings are not facts, perception is not necessarily reality, and our problems are very temporary. In fact, Paul, who knew severe suffering and persecution, called his problems “not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us (Romans 8:18).”
Remind them often that God is a loving Father, a prodigal-chaser, and a way maker. Nothing that happens to our children is unseen, and His arm is not too short to save. He is the God who draws near to the crushed in spirit, who heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds (Psalms 34:18; 147:3). He is able to do “immeasurably more than we ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20), for His saving power is at work within us.
Are any of these a failsafe, a surefire way to prevent teen suicide? Tragically, no. But the Body of Christ, working together, watching for signs and working hard to see that no child, tween, or teen remains on the fringe, can certainly bring love and light to this dark pocket of our society.