13 Reasons Why: Spiritual support for your teen’s mental health

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The new Netflix original TV series 13 Reasons Why prompted educators and mental health professionals to issue strong warnings to parents and schools. The series, based on the fictional book of the same name, has been trending on social media since its original release at the end of March. It chronicles the life of high school student Hannah Baker and the thirteen reasons she feels led to her suicidal death.

The initial media attention and educator warnings caused Netflix to issue their own advisories on the series’ graphic portrayal of sensitive topics. Many are worried vulnerable teens will watch the show without the help of a responsible adult to process the difficult themes, which include portraying suicide as almost inevitable, even romanticized, according to critics.

As a parent of teens, I’ve given a lot of thought to providing an open environment for discussing concerns in their lives. Our talks tend to veer in the direction of faith, since love for God and the wisdom of the Bible have provided an invaluable anchor for my children’s spiritual and character education.

As a Christian Scientist, I’ve learned to cultivate a habit of turning to prayer for guidance in supporting my children’s mental health and teaching them that they have control over the thoughts they choose to accept and act upon. When pressures come up in their lives, they’ve learned that no matter what they’re facing, they are always loved and there is a way out. In the spirit of the Psalmist’s words, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalms 46:1). And “[The Lord] said, ‘I have loved you with a love that lasts forever. I have kept on loving you with a kindness that never fails’ ” (Jeremiah 31:3, NIRV).

The first episode of 13 Reasons Why highlights the sinister side of social media. When the new guy in Hannah’s life sends a provocative photo of her to most of the student body, the image paints a picture that looks true to the observer but in fact falsifies events. Hannah is humiliated and later laments, “The truth will out, unless no one seems interested in the truth.” And that becomes the focus of the series, with Hannah explaining her reason for committing suicide through audio cassette tapes she sends to all of the people she blames for her death. “Maybe you did something cruel,” her recorded voice says, “or maybe you just watched it happen. Maybe you didn’t even realize you were being cruel...”

Each of us can support the innocence and mental health of the young people in our lives by striving to see their true, Godlike identities and helping them to point out the good in their peers, too. They will feel supported when they are guided to establish consistent habits in thinking and acting such as respect, honesty, purity, unselfishness, kindness, discernment. This includes the way they talk about and portray themselves and their peers on social media. In our home, these conversations take place often, and my husband and I have made an effort to understand the social media platforms our children use to communicate. We’ve also helped our kids find a supportive community in our church’s Sunday School where tough topics can be discussed in a safe environment and in the context of scriptural wisdom.

13 Reasons Why is catchy enough for teens to binge watch all thirteen episodes in just a few days. That’s why helping them to choose carefully the media they are exposed to and discussing their reactions to it is so vital.

One of the key lessons I’ve shared with my children from my spiritual practice is helping them learn how to protect their mental state from dangerous or dark influences. We’ve discussed the importance of trusting in the power of good and recognizing that harmful impulses don’t originate in them because they don’t come from their creator, God, who is the source of all good. The very basis of Christianity is founded on the principles Jesus proved in his life, showing us how love overcomes hate and light must defeat darkness. As one of my favorite Bible verses affirms, “I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end” (Jeremiah 29:11).

One teen friend I chatted with about 13 Reasons Why warned me about watching beyond the first few episodes, saying, “It just gets really graphic.” I told her I’d call her if I needed some support! We laughed. But on a serious note, I’m making an effort to mentally stand up for young people to feel safe and confident about their life and to know they’re not alone thinking through these tough issues. There are many more than thirteen reasons why life is worth living.

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