Warning: This article responds to books we’ve seen some of our students reading. Reader discretion is advised; some references are graphic, violent, and/or disturbing.
At least once a week I have to do a double-take when I hear a student say some word or phrase I don’t understand. I usually ask him (or her) to repeat it. Sometimes he won’t, which immediately tells me it is not something he should be saying at school; if he does tell me, I immediately Google it. “On fleek,” “thirsty,” and “what a bop” are just some examples of the terms and phrases I have heard our students use while at school. I know what all of these terms or phrases mean (do you?). I am not necessarily proud of that fact, and I do not learn the lingo to be “cool” with the kids. No, I seek to understand what kids are saying so that I am a better teacher.
At Annapolis, we pride ourselves on being free to teach from a Godly worldview. We seek to instill truth, goodness, and beauty in our students. We understand that as God’s creations, our students must learn to take care of and better their whole selves—physical, mental, psychological, and spiritual. While I am not a parent, I interact with almost 80 kids, five days a week. And, if I say that I am looking out for every student’s entire betterment, then I feel convicted as a teacher and fellow sister in Christ to warn parents about what some of our students are hearing, reading, and watching.
In particular, I am seeking to make parents aware of a book and Netflix series a number of our students are reading and/or watching. 13 Reasons Why, by Jay Asher, starts with a young high school junior committing suicide after a year of being treated extremely poorly—everything from slut-shaming to being physically raped—and leaves behind a series of tapes to be sent to each person who had a role in her decision to end her life.
The show has been met with great acclaim, receiving, for instance, an 85% rating on Rottentomatoes.com and winning MTV awards. However, there are many experts and adults who are advocating for more awareness about the show, considering its glorification of suicide. Dr. Schwartz of the JED Foundation called it a “revenge story,” and Dr. Mayer, psychologist and author, warns against the sensationalizing of suicide. Phyllis Alongi of the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide says the show romanticizes suicide, includes graphic details and depictions of suicide, shows that adults are incompetent and ineffective in helping teens with their problems, and makes Hannah remembered because of her suicide.
After reading the book and watching the show myself to see why our kids were enjoying this story, my concern has only continued to grow. I believe it is imperative to be aware if your child is reading or watching13 Reasons Why. It is imperative to understand how your child may not be able to always distinguish between fiction and reality. How your child may see this one girl’s “success” and consider suicide for him or herself. How your child may not recognize that the story is void of hope or redemption, two of the main themes of Christ and the Bible.
Rape and suicide are obviously horrific events we want to shield our children from. Yet they are horrible truths of the fallen world we live in. And stories that are readily available to our children are often full of these ugly truths. Too many times I have had the heavy privilege of sitting with students as they cried; their pain and confusion over how to deal with the truths of the world, their circumstances, their relationships, and their mistakes all too real. It is naïve to think that Christians do not struggle with anxious, depressing, or suicidal thoughts. We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities of the darkness of this world. In short, spiritual warfare is real, and it can and will attack our bodies—physically and mentally.
And if seeing these struggles in our students weren’t enough to provide a cautionary perspective on some of the pop-culture our students consume, I have my own story to consider. After graduating from college, I was diagnosed with depression. I have sat alone feeling completely hopeless and full of despair before. Upon finishing 13 Reasons Why, my mood significantly changed, and I immediately realized how dangerous watching that show was for someone with my thoughts and tendencies. As we seek to raise children in the image of God, to point them in the right way, and to be as informed as possible to make wise decisions along the way, let us continue to be constantly vigilant in training up our young men and women in the way of the Lord.
In short, I urge you to be aware if your student has read or watched this story or others like it and to have a serious conversation with them if they already have. If your child insists on seeing or reading this story, consider watching it with them, providing an immediate sounding board for reflection and conversation. Finally, if you would like to know more about the warning signs of depression and suicide, or other tips for helping your student, please consider contacting Dr. Bielecki, our guidance counselor. And if you’d like to read more 13 Reasons Why, see this article and this one for sure. There is also “13 Reasons Why Talking Points,” distributed by the JED Foundation. Lastly, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24-7 for all ages at 1-800-273-8255.