13 Reasons Why

My sister is one of the biggest book nerds I’ve ever known. So every birthday and Christmas she buys me a book that I’ve never heard of, one that is almost always awesome. A few years ago that book was 13 Reasons Why. A few months ago that book became a show on Netflix, suddenly teens and adults are paying attention to it. Without giving away to many spoilers, the book is about a high school girl named Hannah who committed suicide and left behind 13 stories on old cassette tapes about why she killed herself. Each one is how one student did something, sometimes something small, that contributed to her making that decision. 


Now to state the obvious upfront, the show and the book are different. The book is centered around one of the people on the tapes who’s listening to them all through the course of a night. The show brings in several other perspectives of the other students on the tapes, parents, and the school’s administration responding. In other words they make it more dramatic for the sake of the show being more dimensional.


There are so many mixed reviews out there for this story, some are applauding it for bringing attention to teenage suicide, bullying, and rape culture. Others are criticizing it for bad writing, romanticizing suicide, and promoting revenge. There are elements of truth in both of those critiques. Teenage suicide is something we like to pretend doesn’t exist even though it is the third leading cause of death in those 15-24 years old. And for every successful suicide, there are about 25 unsuccessful attempts. Around 30% of teens have been involved in bullying in some way, either as the victim or the antagonist. And people are talking about it more than they did before the show came out.

When I first read the book, I thought I wanted to buy every teen I knew a copy of the book because it gives a lot of insight into what their actions actually mean to others. It ended in the idea that you should help brighten someone else's day and reach out to people who you think might be struggling with depression. It called out what happens when bullying, drinking, and peer pressure go unchecked. A lot of youth pastor’s around the country are trying to figure out how to do series or have discussions based around this franchise.


But despite the obvious upsides to the book, there are some downsides. The whole idea of trying to punish those who made your life miserable isn’t explicitly made in the book, but in the show it’s more obvious. Using suicide as a revenge tool should never be an option (not that suicide for any other reason should be an option) but that’s the message some could take away from the show. The show did a better job of trying to make it clear that the tapes weren’t necessarily a collection of definitive truth, that it was her perspective and that she might not always be telling the whole truth.

But for those who suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts, I don’t know if they’ll pick up on the fact that these people on the tapes didn’t actually kill Hannah, that she made her choice for herself and chose how she reacted to all the situations. Non-spoiler alert, she didn’t always make the right choices, but was still a victim. It’s not always a clear line between being a victim and blaming everyone else for your problems. The series portrays Hannah as helpless and powerless to change the things around her. That’s not a message I can support, but one that should be talked about.


And that is why even with all it’s faults, I’d still say that it’s worth a read or a watch for most people. There are a few caveats of course. The first one is that you, the parent, should read and watch it with your kids. Talk to them about what you see. Ask them if they see these things going on in their own school. Ask them if they’ve experienced any of this first hand (or if they’ve done this to someone else). This could be an amazing tool to see what it’s really like for students.

Secondly, there are two scenes which are graphic. One is a rape scene, the other one is of the actual suicide. The producers included them for specific reasons, but a lot of experts are very critical of that choice. They happen in the last two episodes, which thankfully have a warning at the beginning of each episode. I strongly urge you to watch them first before your student does and use your own judgement on whether to skip those scenes or not.

The last caveat is that I would be more cautious with someone who is depressed and a hard no on someone who is suicidal. While this is a great warning tool for most people, it does have the potential to romanticize suicide and might nurture ideas they already have. If you think that might be the case, then get help now, don’t wait. Talk to teachers, counselors, the pastor, whoever you need to talk to that you can trust. There’s a national suicide hotline you can call at 1-800-273-8255. Let them know they are not alone. Show them you care for them. Get them help.


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Nathan Persell serves as our Youth Director. When he's not leading devotions and playing basketball with teenagers, he enjoys disc golf and bike riding. Learn more about Nathan here.