Netflix has generated plenty of comments and concerns with its current young adult drama, “13 Reasons Why,” which tells the story of a teenager who commits suicide.
Since its debut in March, it has been both panned and praised. Critics see the series, which was adapted from a novel by Jay Asher, as a mature take on a tough subject. Yet counselors have concerns over its treatment of suicide, and have suggested parents approach the series with caution.
It’s a good point. But paying attention to a sign that says, “Proceed With Caution” does not mean we stand still. The show offers plenty of opportunities for adults and youth to connect over a serious issue.
The plot involves a high school girl named Hannah who kills herself and leaves behind a series of cassette tapes which describe the people and reasons that led her to take her life. We listen to the tapes through the ears of Clay, a somewhat anxious kid who was one of Hannah’s friends. Clay devours the tapes as he tries to both make sense of Hannah’s death and understand how he may have contributed to her suicide.
Viewers are led into the confusing world of teenage grief and adolescent life. The story can be funny, provoking, moody and deeply disturbing. It’s often as chaotic and confusing as adolescence — and perhaps that is the point.
But it misses the mark by not delving deeper into treatment for depression. The adults are running scared while the teenagers are running on empty. That’s why faith communities need to take the lead in having meaningful conversations about depression and anxiety. It’s essential.
Hannah is bullied, raped, sexually harassed and chewed up by the high school rumor mill, any of which could trigger depression. And Hannah isn’t the only young person coping with depression in the series — just about everyone in this series could benefit from outside help.
The show wades deep into a youth culture that is filled with hook-ups, drinking and drug use. It is an unflinchingly honest portrayal of families in crisis, and at times the youth appear as though they are lost. One youth minister wrote that nearly every teenager in the series is presented in a negative light. But so are most of the adults.
That is the one reason I believe “13 Reasons Why” needs to be viewed and discussed by youth ministers, parents, teachers and youth. There are rarely just 13 reasons why someone chooses to end their life — but many times we can provide the one reason why they shouldn’t.
The adults and youth in “13 Reasons” do not seem to have any meaningful interactions. They’re running in parallel universes, never finding the right time or place to fully connect. If there is one thing I’ve learned from being a pastor and a parent, it is there is no magic time. It takes effort, patience and lots of love to keep lines of communication open.
Here’s the surprise: Kids need just one reason to know that you care. Take the initiative not just to talk but to listen. Tolerate silence, and offer them space.
I wish I had a proven and patented method for talking with teenagers. About the best I can say is to be authentic, be persistent and be ready. Being a companion to a young person as they navigate the goofy and sometimes miserable days of being a teenager is a privilege I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Some days, we get the chance to tell them one thing: They are loved. Wholly, beautifully, unconditionally loved by a God who rejoices when they laugh and weeps when they cry. Let’s find ways to share that one reason why life is always a better choice.
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among young people in Missouri. Every eight hours someone in our state commits suicide. Depression is a treatable disease, and there is hope. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call 314-647-HELP (4357) or 800-273-TALK (8255).
Keating serves as pastor of the Woodlawn Chapel Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Wildwood. He is a regular Faith Perspectives contributor to STLtoday.com/religion.