13 Reasons Why has been a hugely challenging and uncomfortable television series that explores teen suicide. Cassandra Smith navigates the waters and suggest ways our youth ministries can engage.
13 Reasons Why is a Netflix original series based the book by Jay Asher. The drama is centered around high school aged characters whose narratives include abuse, bullying, sexual assault, self-harm, and suicide. Despite its TV-MA rating, teens are binge watching content that highlights intense issues in graphically dramatized, highly emotional narratives.
This leaves us with key questions:
- Do we, as concerned adults, watch the show or not? Is that helpful or harmful?
- With so many of our students watching—what is our best response?
- How do we, as ministers of the Gospel, tackle hard issues in relevant ways?
To Watch or Not to Watch
If we choose to watch 13 Reasons Why for entertainment value—I believe it could be harmful. If we watch for sake of education—there is a potential to learn a great deal on situations young people face. That being said—even with the right intentions the episodes could prove triggering for adults as well. The show does not shy away from brutally graphic portrayals of sexual assault, pornography, sexuality, and completed suicide.
Though I do not condone the show—I did watch it. Why? Because I wanted to be able to provide tools for others who might feel unsure of how to tackle such heavy material. Even with that—I could not stomach several scenes. For those of you who are uncertain about episode content, I have made a full Discussion Guide available, complete with content warnings.
Make sure you make the right decision for you—as how it affects you matters too.
What is our Best Response?
Netflix should not be the ones leading conversations about difficult topics—the church should. Over and over, my students told me they felt understood by the characters in 13 Reasons Why. The relatability piece gave them a sense of belonging. They had a script with which to attach their confusions, emotions and hurt. But I never want a streaming TV service to be the source my teens to find the language for what they feel.
Knowing that content like 13 Reasons Why is out there should push us towards leaning in to student’s stories in appropriate avenues. This may mean initiating one on one meetings with students we know are struggling, forming small groups in which it’s safe to ask messy questions or housing forums for “tough stuff” nights. Anytime we can communicate to students, “Your confusion is welcome here, let me help you find the language and tools to work through it in a healthy way” we form the sense of belonging they crave.
Tackling Tough Stuff
Though students identify with the characters or content of 13 Reasons Why, they are also set up for disappointment once the season concludes. To stir up emotions to that magnitude and not have a pathway of hope is a real problem. Directing students towards hope is one thing a streaming media service does not have—but we do.
We have a reason for our hope. As believers, we carry a message of hope for those who are hurting. How do move that message of hope forward? Often if comes with leaning in to listen, earning trust, providing wise counsel and sharing the Gospel in the right way, at the right time, when a hurting heart is open to receiving it. It is a delicate balance—but through appropriate, intentional pursuit we have the ability to model the hope of Jesus to those looking for it.
A Pathway of Hope for Those Who Watched 13 Reasons Why
Knowing 13 Reasons Why would surface the struggles may young people face—I didn’t want them to be alone. Additionally, I didn’t want Youth Workers, Pastors and parents to feel alone.
It is why I created a Season Two Processing Guide for viewers, parents and youth workers. Students need help understanding the complex nature of issues like abuse, addiction, bullying, depression, hardship at home, image, self-harm and suicide. As we give them room to talk freely about their thoughts on these matters—we teach them how to handle them in a manner that lines up with the Gospel.
You are not alone in seeking to point young people towards the hope and help they desire. May you be given strength and encouragement as you walk with students in difficult places.
Through fifteen years as a youth worker, crisis counseling, non-profit work, mentorship and training of millennial’s, Cassandra Smith seeks to direct teens and young adults towards a pathway of hope. Her Processing Guide for 13 Reasons Why is now available at www.BeyondTheReasons.com