13 Reasons Whyis a Netflix series based on the New York Times best-selling book by Jay Asher. The high school drama highlights teenage characters whose stories include abuse, bullying, sexual assault, self-harm, and suicide. Despite its TV-MA rating (American rating for adult only content), teens have binge-watched graphically dramatised, highly emotional episodes—causing youth workers, pastors and parents concern.
A question remains: How can we, as ministers of the gospel, be most effective in caring for young people who are either triggered 13 Reasons Whyor who themselves face their own stories of abuse, bullying, sexual assault, self-harm, or suicidal thought?
To answer that, let’s discuss five areas to keep in mind:
1. 13 Reasons Why is not going away
Though I do not condone the show, it is available to view without limits. Its damage is done and it continues. We do not do ourselves favours by hoping it, and the issues it presents, will just go away. Yes, the show depicts graphic displays of all sorts of things we would hate our young people to be doing. I do not wish for its episodes to be the leading voice that teens are turning to. But with the phenomena in play—what do we do?
Netflix should not be the ones leading conversations about difficult topics. The Church should. The conversation cannot centre on whether or not we will acknowledge it, but rather on how we, as ministers of the gospel, will.
2. Teen viewers feel a sense of belonging
Over and over again my students told me they felt understood by the characters. The relatability gave them a sense of belonging. They had a script with which to attach their confusions, emotions and hurt.
I never want a streamed TV service to be the source of the language my young people need to express how they feel. Knowing that content like 13 Reasons Whyis out there should push us towards leaning in to their 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 that their confusion is welcome and we want to help them find the language and tools to work through it in a healthy way, we form the sense of belonging they crave.
3. The issues are real; the dramatisation is not. Discussing that matters.
In the same way that a song’s lyrics can provide an outlet to explain the most intricate of emotions, a TV show’s script can provide an outlet of relief. None of the teens I know have the articulation the 13 Reasons Whycharacters do. Season Two teased this in several scenes in which characters said in a variety of ways: “I don’t know how to explain what I am feeling, so how can I talk to you?”
But the truth is the characters did talk. It was just rare that they talked to people who could provide actual care. When the characters did express themselves it gave viewers a pathway. The problem was that the pathway was often harmful.
Young people need to know how to differentiate between the dramatisation of content and the reality of true traumatic situations. We teach can them how to find that language and articulate their emotions, leading them to work through tough issues in a healthy, balanced way when we process alongside of them. It is why I created a Season Two Processing Guidefor 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.
4. It provides a false hope
Although students identify with the characters or content of 13 Reasons Why, they are also set up for disappointment once the season concludes. Both season finales end with brutally graphic scenes. While Netflix did air a Beyond the Reasonsspecial to address viewer concerns and offer helpline numbers it isn’t enough. To stir up emotions to that magnitude and not have a pathway of hope is a real problem.
The one thing that a streaming media service does not have, that we do, is a reason for our hope. We, as believers, are the ones who carry a message of hope for those who are hurting. How do we share that? Often if comes with leaning in to listen, earn trust, provide wise counsel and share 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.
5. Trauma is exhausting for everyone involved
It may feel overwhelming to be in the trenches of trauma issues. You may face great weariness from working with students who need crisis care. It could potentially bring up complex emotions within your own history. The content may be an area of great sensitivity for you. And That is okay.
Know that you are not alone in the fight. There are many resources and networks for youth workers to come together and support one another in difficult spaces. The truth is there is no good way to walk away from a meeting with a student in which they reveal abuse, suicidal intention, horrific bullying or a traumatic home life. I often feel their trauma and it affects me. Yet, I cling to the word, which promises to provide me the strength I need to walk with that student as they journey through a long process of healing. The Lord promises me that:
He will be…a source of strength to those
who turn back the battle at the gate.
Isaiah 28:6 NIV
13 Reasons Why reminds us that the battle is at the gate. Death and destruction are actively seeking to destroy the lives of today’s youth. Yet I take great comfort in knowing that God not only sees this and knows the state of the battle, but he promises to provide me strength in it.
Don’t forget to check out my Season Two Processing Guide.