I’m not an expert on mental health or suicide. If you or someone you know is considering taking their own life, please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 NOW!
I’m also not an expert on 13 Reasons Why, the new series exploding on Netflix about a high school girl named Hannah who commits suicide and leaves cassette tapes detailing 13 reasons why she killed herself.
However, one of my teens asked to watch it because everyone at school was talking about it. My response was to watch it first and then decide whether to watch it together. And so I did. Every. Single. Episode. It affected me deeply for reasons I won’t go into, but I do want to share my impressions about it as a parent.
It’s dark. It’s hopeless. It’s painful. It’s real. At times you can’t tell whether Hannah has methodically left these messages indicting those who have bullied and abused her as a way of revenge or as a desperate cry for justice against those who have mistreated her. Whatever her reasons, she is journaling from a place of raw and unmistakable pain.
While there is much to be learned from this series about the effects of bullying and abuse, the biggest thing missing is truth. There is no spiritual care for her soul, no alternative to the lies Hannah believes about how her experiences have affected her. Lies that get in your head and tell you there is no other way out. Lies from the pit of hell that take root and grow and take on a life of their own when there is no truth to counter it.
And so, as a parent, here is the truth I want my own kids to know to counter the lies in this series:
1. LIE #1: Suicide is everyone else’s fault.
TRUTH: At the end of the day, Hannah chose to end her own life. She chose not to ask for help. In the last scene with the school counselor she seems to want to, but ultimately isn’t willing or doesn’t know how. The shame is too great, and the school counselor is portrayed as inept at uncovering what is really going on.
Had any of her 13 experiences turned out differently, would that have saved her? No one really knows. These 13 reasons are important in considering how we treat one another, but ultimately the decision was Hannah’s and hers alone.
As parents (and friends, pastors, teachers, school counselors, and other trusted adults) we do everything we can to get our kids the help they need. But even when you’ve done all you can, sometimes the worst still happens. It’s not your fault.
There are complex psychological and physiological factors that contribute to the depression and suicidal thoughts that cause someone to want to kill themselves. In fact, suicide is almost always the result of an underlying mental health disorder that can cloud your ability to even make coherent choices. It is a travesty that this is not addressed in the series; instead, suicide is presented as a glorified way of blaming those who have hurt you.
2. LIE #2: I have to figure it out on my own.
TRUTH: It’s OK to ask for help when you’re not OK. As one of the main characters stated, control is an illusion. Attempts at damage control only made things worse for the students named in the tapes. Instead, speak up. Ask for help. Tell the truth about what has happened. You don’t have to figure things out on your own.
One thing that struck me about this series is that none of these teens wanted to talk to their parents or another adult about what was going on. They were from all kinds of backgrounds: rich, poor, well-cared for, abused, married parents, single parents, same-sex parents, caring parents, distant parents…but the one thing they all had in common was that not one of them wanted to talk to their parents about what was happening. Although some may consider this typical teen behavior, the results were disastrous.
3. LIE #3: Suicide is the answer to my problems.
TRUTH: Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. The series misrepresents the permanence of suicide since it doesn’t happen until the very end of the last episode. The first 12 ½ episodes seem like a teenage drama series. It gives the illusion that Hannah continues living after her death by re-living her life through the tapes. The finality of suicide is given just a few minutes at the very end.
What Hannah really seems to want is a fresh start. It would be oversimplifying to say this is what all suicides are about, hence another misleading problem with the series. It focuses on Hannah’s experiences while ignoring the mental health disorders that many suicidal teens experience (see Lie #1).
However, if bullying is a significant factor, is moving to a new school or even a new town feasible? Can you find a psychiatrist or counselor who has a good reputation for working with teens? Can the school principal or counselor help? Maybe the police need to be involved. You may not have all the answers, but be there for them and try to find the answers together.
4. LIE #4: No one cares about me.
TRUTH: Your life matters and you are not alone. The lie that no one cares leads to overwhelming loneliness. We isolate ourselves and box ourselves into a corner when the truth is that we are not alone and people do care. God cares.
Now listen up church people – when someone is in a dark place, God seems far away and you can’t imagine that he loves you or cares about you. The church needs to be Jesus with skin on – real, living, breathing people who truly care about those who are hurting, and not just when they’re in a crisis. It’s not enough to say “God cares.” His people have to care.
5. LIE #5: Life is hopeless and will never change.
TRUTH: Things WILL get better. When you are in crisis mode, you can barely see your hand in front of your face, much less see around the next corner of your life. The truth is that young adults do not have the life experience or even a fully developed brain that can see beyond their current reality. The truth is that there are people who want to help you make positive life changes and give you hope.
What can you do when someone reaches out in the midst of their pain? Check out this resource: https://www.amazon.com/Thirteen-Reasons-Why-Step-Step-ebook/dp/B071RHPVW3/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1493581428&sr=8-1&keywords=thirteen+reasons+why+not
One last thing. Parties and alcohol don’t mix. Ever. Just don’t. Alcohol makes people do stupid things that can change lives forever.
Although I am a Christ-follower, I’ve intentionally not addressed these lies with clichés like “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” The church is good about saying that but not always so good about helping you figure out what it really means, especially when you equate “God’s plan” to your current circumstances which are anything but wonderful. That said, here is some TRUTH about who God really is:
- God does love you and care about you. You matter to him.
- He sacrificed his only son so you can be in a relationship with him.
- You can talk to him about anything.
- He is with you in your loneliness and can give you hope beyond your desperate circumstances.
- He can give you a fresh start, a new beginning as a new creation in Christ.
All of these things are true for those ready and willing to receive it.
As for watching it with my own kids? Maybe the first few episodes, but not the last several ones. Some things you just can’t un-see.
P.S. If you decide to watch the series, be sure to watch the epilogue “Beyond the Reasons” for further discussion.