13 Reasons We Need Have These Conversations...

By Bart Frost

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But Maybe Not Using 13 Reasons Why

Netflix recently adapted Jay Asher’s young adult novel, 13 Reasons Why, into a 13-part series that has catapulted into pop culture, breaking social media and viewership records. Visually compelling with cliff-hangers that pull you from one episode to the next, 13 Reasons Why is well made (produced by Selena Gomez’s production company) but that doesn’t mean it is good. A number of justified critiques of the series note that it glorifies suicide, includes graphic scenes of rape, and goes against recommended guidelines for discussing suicide in the media. It also portrays adults as non-supportive especially the black male guidance counselor, who fails to note the warning signs that the main character is considering suicide.

I was drawn to the series because I’ll watch anything that’s got social media buzzing. I knew at the end of the first episode that viewing would be tough for me based on my personal history. Friends on Facebook and Twitter comments were compelling, and even when an episode left me in tears, I clicked “Play Next” because I wanted to know what happened next. I’ve heard similar stories from other young adults and youth. Shortly after I finished the series, I noticed conversations happening among religious educators about the show and we held a small Zoom conversation about it. You can find that video at BlueBoat Video on Youtube or embedded below for your convenience.

Despite a great deal of criticism of the show (here, here, here, and here), 13 Reasons Why is the most watched Netflix show ever. It broke Twitter records, and it is/was a pretty robust meme factory. I’m worried this post is almost too late, because as a middle schooler told Tech Talk Tuesdays,“That show was like 2 weeks ago. I can’t believe you are still talking about it.” Nonetheless, we need to be having these conversations with our young people, due to an upward spike in deaths by suicide in recent years.

Jules Jaramillo, Director of Lifespan Religious Education at Countryside Church Unitarian Universalist in Palatine, IL, had the opportunity to attend a question and answer session with Jay Asher, the author of the novel the show is based on. Jules says that she wholeheartedly believes it is imperative that we talk about mental health, depression, and trauma because suicide is the second leading cause of death in the United States among people 10-34 years old. “We must shine a bright light on it, creating the same awareness that has been done for other diseases…[but] 13 Reasons Why is not the awareness we should be bringing to our children and youth,” Jules shared in an email to me.

I share Jules’ assessment and, like her, cannot condone watching this show with a youth group or a class because of the risk of trauma or re-trauma it could cause. Liz Martin, Director of Religious Education at South Valley UU Society in Salt Lake City, Utah mentioned holding listening circles or conversations about the topics brought up in the show so that individuals who haven’t watched it could participate as well. I’ve also heard that The Perks of Being A Wallflower handles these topics in a safer way. And because our youth are already having these conversations we need to have them and we need to equip parents to have them as well. Here are some resources:

For parents, Screenagers Movie’s Tech Talk Tuesdays has a few questions to get started. Elephant Journal published a parent’s guide that goes a little bit deeper.

For parents and religious educators looking to have deeper conversations with youth, Conversations on the Fringe has created a discussion guide. I reached out to CotF and they’ve given permission for religious educators to adapt the invocations, Biblical Intersections, and the benedictions as necessary. I would recommend sharing some of the Bible verses because of their relevance and our Sources. I’ve taken a look at the guides published so far (5/3/2017) and found them to be line with our values. I especially appreciate the orthopraxy discussion questions.

The JED Foundation has a list of Talking Points.

The National Association of School Psychologists has some guidance for educators. Penguin Publishing also has an educator’s guide (PDF) for the book.

Some tips from Jules Jaramillo:

First, be aware of and prepare yourself to address numerous depictions of bullying, cruelty, sexual assault, and two instances of rape in both the book and screen adaptation.

Begin the conversation with youth by asking if they have read or seen 13 Reasons Why. If they have, invite them to tell you about it. Listen carefully not only to their words but also to their silence and behaviors. Watch for signs of depression, isolation, self-harm, and any new or intensified displays of emotions. [Ed: Melanie Davis, UUA's Our Whole Lives Program Associate, shares: Ask whether they are concerned about any of their friends or siblings who have watched the series or who may have feelings similar to those of the main character.]

One of the disappointing elements of 13 Reasons Why is the lack of positive adult involvement in young people’s lives. Be that good adult presence.

If your young person needs additional support, do not hesitate to connect them with a professional immediately. Tips for having this conversation can be found at Psychology Today, New York Department of Health, and Youth Suicide Prevention School-Based Guide (PDF).

Provide young people with the National Suicide Prevention phone number—1-800-273-8255—and ask them to carry it with them. If not for themselves, for others. Post the number in youth meeting spaces and restrooms.

If a young person has not yet read the book or seen the mini-series but wants to do so, refer them to the book. The onscreen images cannot be unseen, are not only triggering to people with a history of trauma but may cause trauma themselves. Read the book with them and discuss it at length. Ask questions about whether they connect to the characters and why, who they most identify with, and discuss alternatives to behaviors and actions. Sometimes it is easier to speak of pain through other’s experiences. [Editor’s note: Erica Shadowsong, Interim Director of Spiritual Exploration at the UU Church of Delaware County in Media, PA, brought up that books can bring up trauma as well, so one option might be to use Liz’s suggestion above instead of starting a reading circle.]

Print Wallet Cards for the National Suicide Prevention Line (PDF), so that youth have the phone number on them.

From the Zoom online conversation with religious educators, I took away the idea that this series provides an opportunity to support youth in our congregations. We know that being a teenager is really, really hard and we can have a positive and compassionate impact on young people who are grappling with life's challenges. As noted by Slate, one of the messages that 13 Reasons Why tells young people is that adults, even mental health professionals, don’t know what to do in a crisis or can’t be relied upon to act. Each of us can be one of the positive adults who make a difference. We also need to support the adults in our congregations, including Coming of Age mentors and youth advisors, so that they have the necessary resources to feel comfortable having difficult conversations with youth. One recommendation that arose was to utilize ministerial support and your congregational/pastoral care team (if one exists) in providing care to youth and adults working with youth.

We need to have hard conversations with our youth and to create spaces where they feel safe having these conversations with us.

Do you have any thoughts or resources? Please share them in the comments.

A Conversation About 13 Reasons with Unitarian Universalist Religious Educators