“I hope you're ready, because I'm about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you're listening to these tapes, you're one of the reasons why.”
― Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why
I am sure you have probably heard about the controversy surrounding the Netflix’s original series Thirteen Reasons Why and the impact it is having on young people. I have seen several articles by Catholic publications or institutions warning families that the show glorifies suicide and quite frankly I agree. Many articles (LifeTeen, NBC News) have already been written by experts who can explain how this show could trigger young people who struggle with mental illness or suicidal thoughts way better then me. However many of these articles do not give enough credit to Thirteen Reasons Why for depicting some of the situations that are realities for our children, such as bullying, distrust in authority, and lack of family involvement. Instead of poking more holes into this show, I want to challenge viewers not to dismiss this show entirely but to recognize and not devalue the situations our young people are living every day.
Two weeks ago I knew very little about this show. To be completely honest my husband and I only started watching it because his eighth grade class couldn’t say enough “great things” about it. If you have not seen it, the show follows the story of a high school teen, Hannah Baker, and her reasons for ending her life. Before her death she records a series of tapes that blame specific people for her suicide. I wondered why so many teens were intrigued. I heard a teen from my husband’s high school youth group once say, “This stuff really happens.” My husband’s eighth grade class (eighth grade people) raved about this show. Is it because they finally found a show that vividly describes what life is really like for them?
We would be arrogant to say that bullying does not have a huge impact on teens. According to a study by CDC (Center for Disease Control, 2015) victims of bullying are at risk for anxiety and depression. Those who engage in bullying are likely to engage in substance abuse and violent behavior. Both victim and bully could be at risk for mental health issues which experts say could lead to suicidal notions. All of these examples are illustrated clearly throughout the show by Hannah Baker and the teens listening to her tapes. The threatening language in the bathroom stalls, the lists objectifying girls, the drinking, the stalking, the drugs, the cutting, the list goes on.
One of the biggest things that bothered me in the show was how the teens lived their world and the adults just happened to be there, inadequate and unimportant. It was a “Lord of the Flies” situation. It didn’t matter if the teen came from a broken family, a well-respected military family or even a family of same-sex parents, the adults played no factor in the teen’s decision making. No one told any authority about the tapes or bullying throughout the show. The teens dealt with each others’ criminal behavior on their own. It became apparent that loyalty to a peer was more important than asking for help. Tony, one of the teens who Hannah Baker entrusted to pass on the tapes decided it was better to honor his promise to Hannah instead of turning the tapes over to her family. Another disturbing example is how the teens chose to remain friends with the character Bryce after learning that he had raped two girls, instead of turning him into the authorities.
Unfortunately this is yet another reality. According to a study in 2010 (Petrosina, Guckenburg, DeVoe, & Hanson, 2010), 64 percent of victims admitted they did not report being bullied. After reading several bullying prevention sites, Committee for Children on bullying confirmed that young people tend to exclude authority in intervening because they are embarrassed, or are afraid of losing control of the situation. Also youth do not trust that adults will be able to make effective change. In one episode, one of the teens named Alex rips down suicide awareness signs in his school saying that signs with sparkling font couldn't save a life. So teens are left feeling like they must handle situations on their own.
Another thing I thought was disturbingly true was how the parents in Thirteen Reasons Why thought they were involved in their child’s life. They would have meals together, know their child’s friends, how well they were doing in school and on the basketball team, etc. They thought they knew their kid but when word gets out about Hannah’s suicide and bullying at the school, the parents quickly defend their kids saying “my kid would never do that” or “you have such a kind heart, that is not you.” When the teens in the later episodes receive subpoenas to give a testimony in court, none of the parents question their children's involvement. They simply dismissed the matter and told them to tell the truth. One of the lawyers had a rude awakening when she discovered what her son, Clay, had been keeping from her. Some of these parents put their children on such a high pedestal that they chose not to intervene or dig deeper into the situation.
So how do we as Christians not make the same mistake these adults did? The show portrayed these persons in authority as inadequate which I will argue is not the case, but the teens think otherwise. We need to let our youth know we are there for them and the Church is there for them.
1. We need to acknowledge that this show in the eyes of the teen is fact. These kids are smarter than what we think but they are still teens. They need us to help them distinguish what is fantasy and we need to humbly listen to what their reality is. We need to pick up the pieces and use this as an opportunity on what the Church teaches on depression, bullying and suicide.
2. We need to PRAY. I think the biggest thing this show did for me was to remind me that I need to pray for my girls. Our youth are living in a very difficult environment where they are expected to learn and thrive but they are constantly being attacked. We may not always be able to protect them physically but we can arm them with our prayers. We also need to pray for the adults who interact with our kids on a daily basis especially teachers, youth ministers, coaches, counselors and employers.
3. Lastly do not excuse yourself from learning about this show. Whether it is reading about it or watching it, be aware. Because this show is receiving so much attention, our teens are unfortunately bound to see it somewhere. It is not harmless but it is better that you as a parent, youth minister, or guardian walk with them and unpack what the Catholic Church teaches on these situations.
The Venerable Bishop Fulton Sheen once said, “When a child is given to his parents, a crown is made for that child in Heaven, and woe to the parents who raise a child without consciousness of that eternal crown!” We are responsible for these vulnerable souls. Teens need to know they have a Church that loves them and will fight for them. We cannot fight for them if we do not know what we are fighting against. Thirteen Reasons Why will take teens to a dark place and leave them there but it is our responsibility to lead them back into the light.