My teenage friends (and parents) have asked me to write a blog about the controversial new Netflix mini-series 13 Reasons Why. I’m a mom of three teens and author of the book, Shut Up, which I wrote with help from over a thousand teens. The book connects teens to immediate help (like the Crisis Text Line), mental health professionals, and prayer teams. The book and website help hurting teens experience the love of God, which empowers them to shut up the negative voices in their heads.
Teens are watching this show all over the United States, and with over 11 million tweets, it has become most tweeted show in 2017. Teens and young adults are watching worldwide. I’m writing to you from the Philippines where I’ve been invited to publish Shut Up for Filipino teens because teen suicide and mental health problems are a worldwide problem. In January 2018, the second season of 13 Reasons Why will begin, so it’s going to be around for the immediate future. Our research shows that the majority of teens like the show, but many schools and mental health professionals have warned against people watching it, especially teens.
My hope is that this article will encourage you in three ways: (1) help you become better informed about the latest issues facing teens today, (2) empower you to have positive conversations with your teens about the show, and (3) connect you to practical and spiritual resources that can help bring God’s healing and hope to hurting teens.
Some warnings before you watch. I should really title this 13 Reasons (Most) Parents Should Watch 13 Reasons Why because I have good friends who have lost their kids to suicide or who have teens suffering from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or other mental illnesses and the show may be too much for even their viewing. Some scenes are disturbing and my strong recommendation is that any teen suffering from depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, or is fragile emotionally, shouldn’t be watching the show. I don’t recommend that younger teens (14 and under) watch the show at all. (However please be aware that most middle school students already know about these issues even if we think they don’t.) Parents who have a teen who is suffering from mental illness or thoughts of suicide should consider not watching the graphic scenes of the show (especially the rape and suicide scenes). Reading the book is also another option.
- What is 13 Reasons Why about?
The story is about a high school student, Hannah Baker, who commits suicide and before she dies she leaves 13 tapes telling 13 “friends” why she committed suicide and how they contributed to her death. Each of the 13 episodes reveals how Hannah suffered showing everything from bullying, drugs, drinking, and rape. The last show ends with a horrifying scene as Hannah slits her wrists in a bathtub, where her devastated parents find her. Below is a short video clip from the show, with commentary from the actors and actresses:
- Why is 13 Reasons Why so popular among teens today, and why are many organizations and adults against it?
13 Reasons Why is spreading like wildfire throughout the world and is stirring up controversy between adults and teens. I’ve been meeting with teens and parents, plus researching the many organizations that have published commentaries on it. I’ve put some links below to some of the best articles and videos that I’ve seen so far. The overwhelming majority of teens love the show. Many mental health organizations and schools have strongly warned against watching the show and some have petitioned Netflix to take it down. Recently, there have been what appear to be some copycat suicides with tapes left behind. Other mental health organizations claim that the show has inspired teens to reach out for help, saving some lives. Regardless of our feelings about it, we need to understand just why teens are binge-watching it around the world.
Teenage suicide is now the 2nd leading cause of death among teens age 10-24. We are facing a mental health crisis among teens in America. This week, I spoke at a Mental Health Forum in the Philippines, and mental health doctors and professionals agreed that teen suicide and depression is a worldwide problem. My book, Shut Up, is dedicated to a family who lost their son to suicide. For the past three years, I’ve met with doctors, teachers, parents, mental health workers, youth pastors, and thousands of teens and college students in schools, colleges, churches, and conferences to really dig into this issue. It’s heartbreaking to listen to their personal stories. I can tell you from firsthand experience that many students are suffering with some of the issues raised in 13 Reasons Why.
No doubt being a teenager today is tough. It’s also true that parenting teenagers today is also gut-wrenching and scary. In our family, we are familiar with the bullying, depression, and anxiety common among today’s teens. Thankfully, my kids are open and honest about their problems and what they’re seeing in school. Without a doubt, I am an imperfect parent and won’t ever pretend to have all the answers. My heart is broken for teens and for the parents who are trying to help their kids.
The good news is that 13 Reasons Why gives us a tremendous opportunity to reach out to hurting teens because once we better understand their world, we are better equipped to help them in a loving, supportive, and compassionate way. It’s easy for parents to feel overwhelmed and scared when we hear these awful stories of suicides. But I want to encourage you that there are many ways we can help our teens navigate these stormy times. Every week, we get to see beautiful stories of hurting teens find hope and healing. It’s awesome to watch God take the worst of situations and do miracles of healing and literally save lives. With that in mind, I humbly share my own 13 reasons why I think you should prayerfully watch the mini-series. Lastly, I’ll share some practical ways you can interact with your teens about the show and some resources that are helping hundreds of teens today.
13 Reasons Why (Most) Parents Should Watch 13 Reasons Why
1) The disturbing events in the show aren’t exaggerated, and we adults need to see the reality of what many high school students are experiencing today.
13 Reasons Why has some important lessons and insight into the dark world that some of our teens are experiencing. Let me give you a word of advice: If you choose to watch the show, please don’t tell your kids that you think it’s over -dramatic or unrealistic. You will lose them right there. One of the reasons teens say they love the show is that it validates the truth of how hard life is today in middle and high schools. Sadly, parents, teachers, and counselors are presented as “out of touch” and essentially clueless about how their teens are suffering. I think they’re right. Before I accidentally stepped into my own Ph.D. in the mental health crisis among teens, I was one of those clueless parents.
In my opinion, the show isn’t exaggerated in the least. This stuff is really happening in most high schools around the country. Several years ago, I admit I might have been skeptical that this was a realistic portrayal of today’s “normal” high school. Today, after three years in the mission field of hurting teens, I can tell you from personal experience talking to thousands of teens, parents, teachers, youth pastors, and doctors that the bullying, substance abuse, sexual assault, depression, and suicidal thoughts are really common in today’s high school populations in the U.S. and worldwide. (Note: If you want to see some of the medical research on these issues, you can Google “mental health crisis among teens today” or see the latest statistics in my book.)
2) You will have renewed compassion for your teen or college student after watching the series.
One evening after watching a few episodes of Hannah and her friends in the show, I came downstairs and when Annie asked what I thought, I told her it was disturbing. Annie responded in a matter of fact way,
“That’s the point Mom. Most adults will be disturbed by it, while our generation just thinks, ‘Yep that’s the way it is these days.’” For us, the show may feel dark and twisted, but most teens will tell you it is very realistic and doesn’t water down what’s going on in high school. Unfortunately, many adults don’t know this, so they might (unintentionally) try to cover up these issues or dismiss teens as being dramatic, hormonal, or just trying to get attention. That’s one of the primary reasons I think most parents should watch it, even though it’s hard to get through. After you watch it, you will likely have more understanding and compassion for your teen if they come home from school feeling moody, angry, or scared. Some kids might complain of headaches, stomachaches, or some other vague reason for why they don’t want to go to school (these can be signs of anxiety or depression). Listen to them with compassion and try to understand the “reason behind the reason” they maybe acting out.
3) The scenes of sexual harassment and rape are disturbing and I wouldn’t recommend teens watch them (or some parents either), but the truth is sexual predators exist and we must protect our kids.
I know it’s shocking. Even more disturbing is that one in four girls, and one in six boys will be sexually abused before turning 18. Bottomline: We need to protect our kids. We need to help them understand the real risks of being at parties where people are drinking, doing drugs, and having sex. We need to not be those kinds of parents who think to ourselves, Well I went to those parties so it’s a normal part of growing up. Don’t think that way. Really. It’s not the same today because the pressure to do drugs, drink, and have sex is much bigger than when we were teens (this is even happening in middle school today). Date rape is so common that I’ve heard some college students invented nail polish that girls are wearing so they can “test” their drinks with their finger in order to see if it’s been tampered with drugs. How crazy is that? My husband Ben recently watched the movie Taken with my daughters which tells the story of how two college girls in Europe were sold into the sex trafficking trade. Not a Cinderella movie that we would like to be watching, but this terrible stuff happens in the world we live in today.
Not only do we need to protect our kids from sexual abuse and rape, we need to support and love them if (God forbid) it happens to them. Never minimize sexual abuse or rape, and if you find out it’s happened to your teen or your teen’s friend, do everything possible to support, defend, and encourage the victim to stand up and fight. If not given the chance to speak about it or stand up against the sexual predator, the victim risks being silenced for the rest of his or her life. Our website has great resources for girls who have been sexually abused and a wonderful book we recommend, Broken Treasures , written by a good friend, Julie Daubenspeck, who is a sexual abuse survivor and is helping hundreds of women heal from abuse and trauma.
4) Most teens today have a negative view of counseling, and even if they’re open to it, many barriers stand in the way of them getting to good mental health professionals.
It’s clear from the series that Hannah and all the other “friends” don’t turn to parents, teachers, or counselors for help. Sadly, the school counselor on the show ends up hurting more than helping. Many teens don’t trust counselors, and even if they wanted to see a therapist, it’s difficult for a number of reasons. They would need to tell their parents, and then if the parents had money to pay for a good counselor, they would likely find a long waiting list for good adolescent therapists today.
I’m a big fan of good therapists and psychiatrists, and thank God for the help they’ve given my family. I also know that despite all the good clinical resources out there (and all the good people who are trying to help) the suicide rate continues to rise and the mental health crisis continues. We need other avenues of help that teens can access on their own. Most importantly, we need to connect teens to a good God where they can learn to hear His loving voice and see themselves through His eyes of compassion. When that happens, everything changes. I’ve seen this happen over and over again to teens. It’s beautiful and so encouraging when we see God bring healing and freedom to a teen in pain.
There is no reference to faith, God, or prayer in 13 Reasons Why, which is sad because thousands of teens are finding hope and healing through a personal relationship with God. Chapter nine of my book is called, “Finding Safe People Who Will Shut Up and Listen” (the title chosen by teens). This chapter gives a “menu” of different people and organizations that teens can contact immediately (and where they can remain anonymous if they choose). This chapter connects teens to counselors, a Crisis Text Line, suicide hotlines, K-Love pastors, prayer teams, and most importantly, to a relationship with God. We are working on a Philippine edition of Shut Up that would provide mental health and spiritual resources in that country, and we are praying God opens doors to publish Shut Up in other countries because of the teen suicide rate worldwide.
5) Surprisingly, 13 Reasons Why left out an important issue that parents, teachers, and educators need to understand: Stress over academic pressure teens are reporting today.
In my book, I’ve dedicated a whole chapter to this significant factor in today’s teenage depression, anxiety, and suicide. I show research about the academic pressure, lack of sleep, long sports practices followed by hours of homework late into the nights, panic attacks over homework, kids hospitalized over SAT and AP tests, teens jumping off buildings because of bad grades, college students so depressed they cannot function over grades and student loans. This stuff is really happening. My book is full of stories and statistics to back it up. The bottom line is that the pressure our teens are facing today in academics, sports, and college applications is too much. We need to wake up and seriously look at these important issues because they truly are contributing to the mental health crisis we are witnessing today among adolescents.
6) Cyber-bullying and bullying happens in most schools today but many teens don’t report it.
13 Reasons Why does a good job of warning teens that being cruel to their friends or other students can have life threatening consequences. The website www.stopbullying.gov defines bullying as “any unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.”
Bullying is complicated because it’s not just face-to-face bullying that our teens are experiencing. Social media has escalated bullying to a whole new level. Teens can be bullied by friends bashing their pictures on Snapchat, spreading rumors on a group chat, or harassing a kid playing a group video game. Sending nude or sexually explicit pictures of oneself is a common thing. I’ve known of girls becoming suicidal after a boy texted a picture of them nude to a whole group of guys. It’s horrible. When it comes to “fixing” bullying, it’s very complicated. Going to school officials should solve the problem, but even the best teachers and principals can unintentionally make it worse. I’ve seen kids have panic attacks or spiral into depression because they tried to be brave by telling on the bully, only to have it spread that they’re the “snitch” and the bullying intensifies. That said, there are ways you can empower your teen to stand up to bullies and to not stay alone if they are being bullied. For more information on how you can help your teen if they are being bullied, you can see ideas in my book or check out the website I mentioned above, www.stopbullying.gov.
7) Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, cutting, and suicidal thoughts are common among today’s teens, and it’s important to recognize the signs.
You can find information on the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems on various websites including www.cdc.gov and www.nimh.nih.gov. In my book, you’ll find a short depression and anxiety screening tool, which isn’t a substitute for professional counseling, but does give some warning signs for teens and parents to consider. What’s important is to be informed about the signs of mental health problems and to reach out for help if you’re unsure what to do.
8) The parents in 13 Reasons Why (even the caring ones) are clueless about what’s happening in their teenagers’ lives.
My daughter, Annie, says,
“Mom, whatever you do, don’t stand up in front of teens and be one of those adults who says you “get” our world. No adult can understand.” Annie is right.
We parents, adults, and even youth pastors cannot begin to fathom the dark world our kids are facing today. When I speak to large groups of teens, I always ask them this question:
“How many of you know of someone who has committed suicide?” (Typically, about 90% will raise their hands.) When I ask teens if they would tell anyone if they are hurting, the majority of them say they would tell no one (or maybe a friend). We want to be the type of parents who know what’s happening in our teenager’s lives, and we want to enter into conversations with them where they’ll share the hard stuff.
9) The teachers and counselors in Hannah Baker’s school aren’t aware of the bullying, mental illness, isolation, and pain she’s experiencing, and this is sadly common in many schools today.
I’m thankful for the middle and high school teachers on my ministry board. Most teachers I know care deeply about teens and their pain. Even though the teachers and counselors on 13 Reasons Why don’t seem aware or experienced in helping teens, I know many teachers and school counselors who are helping. What’s the lesson here? Teachers and counselors need to know how critical their encouraging and supportive words can mean to a hurting teenager. There is a story in my book about a high school student who was planning to commit suicide and chose not to go through with it because a caring teacher intervened. We need more caring teachers and counselors who tell teen students that while no adult can fully understand the pain they may be feeling, that we are safe adults that care and will listen.
10) Peer pressure to get drunk, do drugs, and have sex is huge in today’s middle and high schools (even if teens are trying hard to stand against it).
Drug abuse and alcohol addiction is a huge problem among today’s youth. If you Google drug abuse and alcohol addiction among teens and college students I promise that most of you will be shocked. Below are a few snapshots of the substance abuse problems among youth…
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that in 2014, approximately five percent of the American adolescent population suffered from a substance use disorder; this equates to 1.3 million teens, or one in every 12.
- Almost 700,000 American youths between ages 12 and 17 battled an alcohol use disorder in 2013, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism(NIAAA).
- Individuals who tried marijuana or alcohol before the age of 15 were almost four times as likely to suffer from a marijuana use disorder as an adult than those who waited until after age 18 to try these substances, according to data published in the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Clay in the show is a good example of a teenager who is pressured by peers to drink, even though he doesn’t want to binge drink alcohol. In both public and private schools, peer pressure to drink, do drugs, and have sex is extremely difficult to overcome. Kids enter school trying to make friends and get invited to parties only to find that if they don’t participate in this stuff they are rejected as “uncool” and risk losing friends. Smoking pot is considered cool and is even legal in some states, and many people are ignorant of the damage it’s doing to their teen’s brain and how this addiction can be deadly (driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol is just one example).
11) We need to be sensitive when talking to parents who have lost a child to suicide or are parenting teens with mental health problems.
My friend whose son committed suicide could write a book on how many people said insensitive and sometimes cruel things to her. It’s shocking what parents will say (many do this unintentionally) to a grieving parent who has lost their teen to suicide. Parents can sometimes say hurtful things to another parent who is struggling to help their teen through depression, anxiety, or mental illness or give advice that’s not helpful. The parents in 13 Reasons Why often said hurtful things to other grieving adults, and we need to learn from their mistakes. We need more compassion, kindness, and humility as we try to reach out to hurting parents. My advice? The very most important way you can be a friend to a parent who has a hurting teen (or has lost a child to suicide) is to love them unconditionally and never judge their parenting. Some practical ideas: (1) Don’t offer easy answers, tell them what to do, or settle into thinking that this will never happen to you. (2) Never label a parent as a “bad parent” because we are all imperfect parents who make mistakes. (3) Send a compassionate letter or e-mail offering practical support like meals, carpool help, or any other practical need to those parents who are dealing with a teen’s mental health issue. (Note: Please be sure to emphasize that they don’t need to even respond to your offer to help, but that you’ll be offering from time to time, and you’re there to help.)
12) God is using 13 Reasons Why to connect suffering teens to God, and we have the opportunity to be part of His healing and hope for this hurting generation.
While it’s true that watching 13 Reasons Why can make parents feel depressed and fearful, we need to move from that helpless feeling to the biblical truth that God is able to do exceedingly more than all we ask or imagine as we pray for our kids. We have a tremendous opportunity here to bring God’s hope and healing to hurting teens. In our ministry, we see countless stories of Hannah-like teens finding healing and freedom through a relationship with Jesus. When teens learn to hear God’s voice and experience His love, they are empowered to “shut up” the negative and lying voices in their heads. They know that they aren’t alone and can learn how to see themselves through God’s loving eyes which rebuilds their shattered self- esteem and encourages them that life is worth living.
On our website designed by teens (www.sayshutup.com), you will find many real life stories of hurting teens who found healing and hope through a relationship with God. You can see many videos of teens and college students sharing their stories and how God met them in that suffering. God is doing great things, and we want to share that good news with parents and teens. Our vision is to give away free copies of Shut Up books to every teen that wants one.
13) Watching the show can inspire us to get involved in helping and praying for hurting teens.
Sometimes, I find myself thinking, What would Jesus say to Hannah Baker and the hurting teens in 13 Reasons Why?
Of course, we can’t know for sure this side of heaven, but knowing our Loving God, whose heart breaks for His hurting young people, I believe He might say something like this to hurting teens like Hannah and her friends…
I see everything happening to you and your friends, and it breaks my heart. I love you more than you can possibly imagine. I see all your mistakes, and I’m standing here with open arms, ready to forgive you, heal you, fight for you, and set you free. Give me a chance. Talk to me; I will help you. You can experience my healing Presence and find hope. Do not give up, because the pain you’re experiencing is temporary. You are not alone, and I am with you always.
If you want more information on how to talk to your teen about 13 Reasons Why or if you need resources to help a hurting teen, our website has a parent’s page for your review. https://www.sayshutup.com/info-for-parents-teachers-and-adults/ Our non-profit ministry is passionate about helping hurting teens and connecting them to God, prayer teams, pastors, and other clinical resources that can bring healing to mental illness and save lives. If you would like to help us in this huge mission field of hurting teens, we would be grateful!
For more information on how to talk to your hurting teen about 13 Reasons Why or any other personal struggle, please see practical resources on our website at www.sayshutup.com.
And for more reading on the subject, please check out this excellent article “How To Ruin Your Relationship With Your Teenager”
Christy Pierce is an ordained pastor, international speaker, author of God is Whispering to You and Shut Up. Christy and her husband Ben (also a pastor) live in the San Francisco Bay Area with their three teenagers, two dogs, three cats, and two goldfish.