TO: Pastors, religious, deacons, administrators, parishioners and parents of the Diocese of Fairbanks
FROM: Fr. Robert Fath, Director of Faith and Family Formation
DATE: 3 May 2017
SUBJECT: Pastoral Concerns Regarding “13 Reasons Why”
A few days ago a concerned parent in the Fairbanks area forwarded an email from the FNSB School District encouraging parents to be aware of a new series on Netflix called “13 Reasons Why.” The show is rated MA, for mature audiences only. I had heard about the series in passing, but until receiving this email I thought little about it. Since then, though, I have taken the opportunity to watch the first episode and feel compelled to urge extreme caution and draw awareness to the themes presented in this increasingly popular show among our young people. I have only watched one episode and was left very disturbed and concerned by it and am reticent to continue watching. These hesitations seem to be confirmed by mental health professionals, clergy, and concerned teachers, parents and youth ministers who have watched the show in its entirety.
The series is based on a book by Jay Asher that portrays themes about suicide, drug use and sexual assault among teens. It is a fictional account about a high school junior, Hannah Baker, who commits suicide and leaves behind thirteen tapes, in her own voice, naming a particular person in her life and describing how they contributed to her suicide. Clay Hensen, one of Hannah’s classmates and friends, listens to each tape and charts her suicidal steps from terrible rumors spread about her, the loss of her best girlfriend, sexual assault at a party (graphically portrayed) and eventually he committing suicide by slitting her wrists (also graphically detailed). Certain episodes of the series contain “trigger warnings” at the beginning warning viewers of the intense and graphic nature of the scenes and the emotions or memories they may evoke. Some are lauding the series as a way to stir discussion with teens about the topics portrayed while others have said that the darkness and hopelessness has a strong potential to cause teens struggling with these issues to be pushed over the edge.
Regardless of what opinion reviewers hold they have all universally and adamantly recommended that teens not watch this series without parental involvement. In a state which has one of the highest rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse and sexual assault these concerns should be taken very seriously.
Suicide prevention groups and mental health professionals have raised concerns about the inaccurate portrayal and seeming glorification of suicide. Suicide is shown as a solution to the primary problem; it serves as vindication for the main character. The series begins and ends with her angry and alone while the thirteen people she sends the tapes to have the opportunity to start over again. Mental health professionals have noted
that nowhere in the series is mental illness explicitly discussed or talked about. It leaves one with the impression that if we were all just a little nicer to each other all these problems would go away. It has a tendency to romanticize and glorify the main character’s suicide and turn it into some sort of heroic self-sacrifice.
A priest-friend in another diocese watched the whole series and noted that Netflix insisted on a follow up discussion/commentary be produced with the series because of the content of “13 Reasons.” The commentary discusses why the series was made and urges people to come forward but does little to address the more important themes of help, support, healing and hope. In his opinion, if the series ends the way first season has it will do nothing but leave people wounded and runs the risk of re-victimizing those who have struggled with suicidal thoughts, drug and alcohol abuse or sexual assault.
An editorial on the series written in America Magazine states:
The show is very clear in its vision that others were responsible for Hannah’s death, but that view does not seem to be in sync with a subject as complex as suicide. Certainly, the community has a role to play, but this seems to discount volition and free will entirely, which is particularly important in a scenario such as Hannah’s, where there seems to be absolutely no evidence of mental illness. The series attempts to make a very cut and dried case out of a situation that can never be cut and dried…Ultimately, the answers “13 Reasons” provides are not answers at all and leave the audience with nothing but confusion and despair.
Given that the local school district has circulated an awareness letter to parents it is clear that our youth have seen and are discussing “13 Reasons Why.” It is important that parents, teachers, pastors and other adults who interact with our youth be aware of this series, talk about it with their youth, and be on guard for warning signs that may present themselves. Three practical steps that can be taken:
1) Know the warning signs of depression/suicide:
- Suddenly deteriorating performance in school, sports, etc.
- Changes in attendance at school or youth activities
- Talking about suicide, suicidal threats or taking unnecessary risks
- Loss of interest in things they use to enjoy doing
- An unusual interest in death and dying
- Feelings of hopelessness or depression
- Change in friendships or withdrawing from friends
- Mood swings or personality changes
- Giving away prized possessions
2) Talk to your child or the youth you interact with:
- Let your child know that you care and love them
- Do not be afraid to talk to your child if they have or are considering suicide
3) Seek help:
- If it is an emergency, call 911 or local law enforcement
- Know the local suicide hotlines:
- National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
- Contact your child’s local healthcare provider
- Talk with your local clergy
- Notify your child’s school administration
We should not be afraid to address issues of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse and sexual assault. In fact, we have an obligation to do so within our Catholic-Christian context of hope, healing and salvation. As members of the Body of Christ we must remember the words of St. Paul, “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy” (1 Cor. 12:26). Life comes with its joys and its difficulties, but the future is much brighter and more positive than “13 Reasons Why” would have us believe. It is important we, the people of God, be aware of those around us who are suffering and provide the support and healing that is necessary.