CHICAGO, IL (May 16, 2017)—Rather than trying to shelter teens from the controversial but wildly popular “13 Reasons Why,” parents and churches are being encouraged to take the opportunity to talk with young people about the significant issues raised in the Netflix drama-mystery.
In the show, teenager Hannah Baker kills herself by slitting her wrists in a bathtub. Instead of leaving a suicide note, Hannah records 13 cassette tapes addressed to the people who tormented, bullied, assaulted, and ignored her.
The show is marketed to young adults and teens but is rated TV-MA for its graphic depiction of rape, suicide, and shaming, and it is filled with rough language. Major psychiatric associations, educators, and other organizations contend that the show romanticizes suicide—or at least presents it as a legitimate way to deal with life’s pain. Many express concern that it could spur copycat behavior, especially among teens already given to suicidal thoughts.
Lisa Holmlund, a Covenant minister completing her Clinical Pastoral Education at a Denver area hospital, said two teens recently brought to the emergency room had made a pact to kill themselves together in the same way Hannah does on the show. Holmlund said the 17-year-old boy and 14-year-old girl had a history of mental health issues.
Schools across the country have sent letters to parents to warn them about the show. But teens already have been watching—and talking about it. Parents and other adults in the church should join that conversation, youth leaders say.
“We have to find ways to bring the light of God’s truth and God’s promises into the darkness, but how are we to be ministers of hope and peace if we aren’t talking about some of these dark, awful things that do happen?” says Holmlund, who will soon return to full-time youth ministry as associate pastor of youth at Grace Community Covenant Church in Olympia, Washington.
“The experiences the main character experienced were similar to my own,” says Carol Smith, interim youth director at the Evangelical Covenant Church in Lafayette, Indiana. “The scenes everyone wants to look away from I have experienced first-hand. No one wanted to name what I experienced as what it was, and because of that I felt shame for many years. The rumors, the dismissive adults, the fake friends—they are realities many of our students face.”
A lot of times we don’t talk about these things, but how are we to be ministers of hope and peace if we aren’t talking about some of these dark, awful things that do happen? —Lisa Holmlund
Smith, who lost a friend to suicide, adds, that she is concerned about other viewers who have lost loved ones to suicide. “I fear they will be held to a standard no one can meet.” Each episode of the show features a person in Hannah’s life whom she blames for her suicide.
Some experts criticize the show for failing to identify or acknowledge the role mental illness can play in suicide. That absence is a gaping hole in helping people understand what can lead to tragedy, they say.
On the question of whether parents should watch the show, youth leaders differ. Few would argue that teens should watch it—certainly not without parents in the room. But several suggest that parents and the broader church should respond by having respectful conversations with the young people in their lives. Dismissing the show saying, “It isn’t that bad” or “It doesn’t affect our kids” can be dangerous. Several youth ministers have offered to watch the show with the parents and teens in their church.
“The complexity of the life of a teenager is great, including the enormous hurt they carry—both real and perceived,” says Matthew Humphreys, pastor of family ministries at Trinity Covenant Church in Salem, Oregon. “‘13 Reasons Why’ forces us to acknowledge realities that ought to break our hearts and increase our awareness of the young people around us who desperately need adults who take them seriously and communicate a love that goes beyond performance and obedience.”
It also is important for other adults in the church to invest in teens. Many young people say it’s easier to talk about some issues with someone outside their family—even if the parent-teen relationship is a good one.
“It’s so important for youth leaders to get volunteers who are different from them,” says Holmlund. “I’m extroverted. I’m loud. So what does that do for the introvert who doesn’t like to be silly and up-front? I have to find someone who is different from me to reach out to those kids. It is crucial to find a variety of youth leaders so all kinds of kids can have someone to relate to.”
Many resources are available to churches in print, online, and through hotlines, says Ben Kerns, lead pastor for students and families at Marin (California) Covenant Church. He suggests, “Get to know local therapists. Familiarize yourself with protocols in case students should need to be admitted to a hospital.”
But he cautions, “Doing ministry with and for the students is not as simple as buying the latest resource or leveraging your inspiration from the latest conference. We need proactive culture changers that can translate the gospel to this lost and broken world. This starts with taking seriously the world and culture our kids live in.”