Season Two of 13 Reasons Why released May 18th. With its top-shelf ranking in all of our Netflix accounts—it’s fair to assume our students are watching it. Despite its TV-MA rating, teens are binge watching content that highlights intense issues in graphically dramatized, highly emotional narratives. A question remains: How can we, as minsters of the Gospel, be most effective in ministering to students who are either triggered by 13 Reasons Why or face the core issues the show highlights?” To answer that, let’s discuss five areas to keep in mind:
1 – 13 Reasons Why is Not Going Away
The problem: Though I do not condone the show—it is available to view without limits. Its damage is done and it continues. We do not do ourselves favors to hope it , and the issues it presents, will just go away. Yes, the show depicts graphic displays of sin—along with heartbreaking choices with high consequences. I do not wish for its episodes to be the leading voice that teens are turning to. But with the phenomena in play—what do we do?
Our response: Netflix should not be the ones leading conversations about difficult topics—the church should. The conversation cannot center on whether or not we will acknowledge it—but rather on how we, as minsters of the Gospel, will.
2 – Teen Viewers Feel a Sense of Belonging
The problem: Over and over, my students told me they felt understood by the characters. The relatability piece gave them a sense of belonging. They had a script with which to attach their confusions, emotions and hurt.
Our response: I never want a streaming TV service to be the source my teens to find the language for what they feel. Knowing that content like 13 Reasons Why is out there should push us towards leaning in to student’s stories in appropriate avenues. This may mean initiating one on one meetings with students we know are struggling, forming small groups in which it’s safe to ask messy questions or housing forums for “tough stuff” nights. Anytime we can communicate to students, “Your confusion is welcome here, let me help you find the language and tools to work through it in a healthy way” we form the sense of belonging they crave.
3- The issues are real—the dramatization is not. Discussing that matters.
The problem: In the same way that a song’s lyrics can provide an outlet to explain the most intricate of emotions—a TV show’s script can provide an outlet of relief. None of the teens I know have the articulation the 13 Reasons Why characters do. Season 2 teased this idea in several scenes in which characters said in a variety of ways, “I don’t know how to explain what I am feeling, so how can I talk to you?” But the truth is—the characters did talk. It was just rare that they talked to people who could provide actual care. When the characters did express themselves—it gave viewers a pathway. The problem was that the pathway was often harmful.
Our response: Teens need to know how to differentiate the dramatization of content versus the reality of true traumatic issues. We teach them how to find that language and articulate their emotions—leading them to work through tough issues in a healthy, balanced way when we process alongside of them. It is why I created a Season Two Processing Guide for viewers, parents and youth workers. Students need help understanding the complex nature of issues like abuse, addiction, bullying, depression, hardship at home, image, self-harm and suicide. As we give them room to talk freely about their thoughts on these matters—we teach them how to handle them in a manner that lines up with the Gospel.
Provide real avenues for hope
The problem: Though students identify with the characters or content of 13 Reasons Why, they are also set up for disappointment once the season concludes. Both season finales end with brutally graphic scenes. While Netflix did air a “Beyond the Reasons” special to address viewer concerns and offer helpline numbers—it isn’t enough. To stir up emotions to that magnitude and not have a pathway of hope is a real problem.
The solution: The one thing that a streaming media service does not have, that we do, is a reason for our hope. We, as Believers, are the ones who carry a message of hope for those who are hurting. How do we share that? Often if comes with leaning in to listen, earning trust, providing wise counsel and sharing the Gospel in the right way, at the right time, when a hurting heart is open to receiving it. It is a delicate balance—but through appropriate, intentional pursuit we have the ability to model the hope of Jesus to those looking for it.
Remember God is with You in The Battle
The problem: It may feel overwhelming to be in the trenches of trauma issues. It could potentially bring up complex emotions within your own history. The content may be an area of great sensitivity for you. And That is okay. In addition to this, you may face great weariness from working with students who need crisis care.
The Solution: Know that you are not alone in the fight. There are many resources and networks for Youth Workers to come together to support one another in difficult spaces. The truth is—there is no good way to walk away from a meeting with a student in which they reveal abuse, suicidal intention, horrific bullying or a traumatic home life. I often feel their trauma and it affects me. Yet, I cling to the Word which promises to provide me the strength I need to walk with that student as they journey through a long process of healing. The Lord promises me that:
He will be…a source of strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate. Isaiah 28:6 NIV
13 Reasons Why reminds us that the battle is at the gate. Death and destruction are actively seeking to destroy the lives of today’s youth. Yet I take great comfort to know that my God not only sees this and knows the state of the battle—but He promises to provide me strength in it. See the link above for the 13 Reasons Why Season Two Processing Guide or resources to help your teens work through difficult topics go to www.BeyondTheReasons.com
Through fifteen years of youth leading, crisis counseling, non-profit work, mentorship and training of millennial’s, Casandra is turning the stories she has heard into a pathway of hope for others.