13 Reasons Why:
A Youth Ministry Response

It was an average youth group meeting, plates with pizza crust were strewn across the floor, kids were loud and chattering, sneaking peeks at their cell phones. I overheard a group of girls gushing about “13 Reasons Why,” a show I had briefly, though with curiosity, scrolled past on my Netflix account.

After listening to them rave, it was clear to me that “13 Reasons Why” was the next “binge watch” fad. So in an effort to connect more with my kids, I decided to give it a watch.

13 Reasons Why

Disappointment

I was disappointed. I wasn’t disappointed because it was yet another adolescent show that played into the teenage television trope of high school melodrama, sexual tension, jocks and loners, and forays in drinking and snogging. I expected all of those things (and, let’s be real, even adults still maintain a fascination with teenage culture. My own teen years were filled with “My So Called Life” viewings and Nirvana blaring through headphones. And I still own, and wear on the regular, a pair of original black Doc Marten boots).

No, I was disappointed by just how much this show got suicide so wrong.

“Everyone is just so nice, until they drive you to kill yourself,” is one of many definitive statements made by Clay, the 17 year old protagonist in the series. “13 Reasons Why” is a story about Hannah Baker, the new kid in school, who takes her own life and leaves behind a recording of 13 tapes detailing the people and events that drove her to her death. The story follows Clay as he deals and interacts with the people mentioned in these tapes.

I was disappointed by just how much this show got suicide so wrong.

But the show isn’t really about Clay. It’s about Hannah. And its entire plot structure is about unraveling the mystery of the why of her suicide. When that’s the premise of your plot, you better do your due diligence in getting it right.

But the show is almost assuredly more harmful in its message than helpful. The series presents Hannah’s death as the product of cyber bullying, sexual assault, and other forms of victimization, all perpetuated by her own classmates.

There is no mention of mental illness.

This leaves the viewer with, as my students told me verbatim, the “lesson that we should be kind to one another and not bully each other.” Because it is, as depicted very obviously in the show, bullying and harassment that drive young people to commit suicide.

Every 17 Minutes

13 Reasons WhyEvery 17 minutes in America, someone commits suicide, and it is more often than not a young person, a kid (it is the second leading cause of death for older adolescents). In 1995, for example, more young people died of suicide than of AIDS, cancer, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, birth defects, and heart disease combined. And that rate has steadily gone up over the past decade — 260 percent in the last 30 years.

We are so uncomfortable and afraid of this epidemic, however, that oftentimes we cling to our misguided belief that it is mostly the kids who “have a rough time” and are victims of their peers’ harassment and alienation that are the ones who kill themselves.

Narratives like “13 Reasons Why” play into that misguided belief, leading my students (even after the advent of brain imaging, the new research in genetics, and the impressive gain of scientific understanding regarding the organic brain disorders that cause mental illness) to parrot “if we would only be kind, we can help people. We can save lives.”

Which, the flip side of this statement is, of course, (and Clay claims this as much in the series) that “we all killed Hannah Baker.” We are somehow responsible for another’s suicide. Survivor’s guilt, experienced by the people impacted by the suicide of their loved one, is one of the most unfortunate consequences of this widespread tragedy.

The Myth

Kay Redfield Jamison, author of Night Falls Fast, and a psychiatrist who herself suffers from Bipolar disorder, perfectly and succinctly sums up just how untrue this popular myth of “be kind and save lives” is.

Jamison recounts her own suicide attempt, explaining how her disrupted thought was equally as disrupted as her mood: ”No amount of love from or for other people — and there was a lot — could help. No advantage of a caring family and fabulous job was enough to overcome the pain and hopelessness I felt; no passionate or romantic love, however strong, could make a difference. Nothing alive and warm could make its way in through my carapace. I knew my life to be a shambles and I believed — incontestably — that my family, friends and patients would be better off without me. There wasn’t much of me left anymore, anyway, and I thought my death would free up the wasted energies and well-meant efforts that were being wasted in my behalf.

What Now?

If the answer is not as simple as “be nice,” then what can we church volunteers and pastors, who work specifically with young people, do to help? What can a Christian community offer that is unique from school assemblies and public service announcements?

For starters, the church can be a resource, connecting people with trusted mental health professionals.

But on a more theological level, Christianity has long been familiar with “the dark night of the soul.” In the traditions of the church, the liturgy of the worship service, and the verses of lament within the pages of scripture, Christianity offers a unique voice to those who are suffering from mental health conditions and despair.

The Gospel compels us to seek out those who are hurting, and to provide not just empty niceties or small acts of kindness but, rather, a community, a consistent group of people who live in relationship with the sick.

Not only does our Christian faith have a long and intimate relationship with suffering, thereby helping us to be more comfortable with hard stigmatizing topics, but our faith also places suffering in a larger redemptive narrative. It’s a narrative that tells us that suffering does not have the last word. The protagonist in our story, Jesus Christ, does not depart from us after his prayers at Gethsemane or his cries on the cross. Our savior departs from us after he has resurrected and defeated death, heralding a new season of advent, of waiting for the reconciliation of all things.

Jesus also teaches us how to behave toward those who are suffering, who are on the margins, who are sick, who are alienated. The Gospel compels us to seek out those who are hurting, and to provide not just empty niceties or small acts of kindness but, rather, a community, a consistent group of people who live in relationship with the sick.

“13 Reasons Why” is good entertainment for some. It resonates with the angst of kids trying to grow up in an increasingly complex world of mass text messaging, video capability in the palm of your hand, and split second social media posting.

But it gets the why wrong.

And so, may we be ministers of the right why, which will then powerfully enable us to be committed disciples of the right how. The right how of being a resurrected people reaching out to a dark and hurting world…in a well informed way.


About the Author: Megan Cullip

MeganMegan Cullip currently serves as a youth minister in Connecticut. Her first call in ministry was as a chaplain at a state psychiatric hospital. She is also a trained substance abuse counselor. Megan loves music, cheeseburgers, deep conversation, laughing with friends, and hikes in the woods. Her favorite theologian is Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

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