13 Reasons Why Not
One of our most uncomfortable family dinner conversations began with a disturbing question. With tears in her eyes, my 12-year old asked, “I heard that Mrs. Jackson killed herself Friday night. Is that right?” When I asked her where she had heard that, she replied, “On the school bus, this morning.” Mrs. Jackson was our neighbor and the mother of my daughter’s classmate. Then, less than one year later, my daughter’s best friend lost her big brother to suicide; again, bringing that difficult subject to our dinner table.
These were not conversations I was planning to have with my daughter at such a young age, and I am deeply saddened at how they were forced upon us. Ironically, at that time, I was volunteering on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK). Through that work, I had the heart-wrenching experience of talking many people off the proverbial ledge. Sadly, I also spoke to many teenagers who were struggling – alone - with thoughts of ending their young lives. Recently a lot of buzz has been generated around the new Netflix series called “13 Reasons Why.” Based on the fiction novel by Jay Asher, the show chronicles the series of events leading to the suicide of a teenage girl, Hannah. Hannah has left behind audiotapes for 13 people who played a role in Hannah’s decision to kill herself. The series has generated much controversy and discussion among families and school districts. In addition to its graphic depiction of suicide, the show also depicts bullying, rape, slut-shaming, and the bystanders and others who failed to respond.
What is the Christian response to suicide and suicidal thoughts, especially among teenagers? Do we just hope to God that going to Youth Group will provide enough insulation for our most vulnerable teens? Most mental health professionals agree that talking about suicide with teens will not plant the idea or inspire them to attempt suicide. It may, however, have a protective effect. It opens up the door for your teen to share some of their deepest hurts, anxieties, fears, and disappointments. Perhaps they have questions, too.Ask your teen the question: Have you ever thought about ending your life? If there has been a suicide in your community, ask your teen if they knew the student and how the death has impacted them. More than anything, listen without judgment. If your teen has expressed suicidal thoughts, ask your school counselor, pastor, and/or pediatrician for help and referrals.
The Scriptures arm us with wisdom and protection. God’s promises are an anchor for the lost and despondent. Many people attempt suicide because they see it as their only escape. But God will provide a way out, that you may be able to endure (1 Cor 10:13) the hurt and the pain. Many people who attempt suicide feel alone and unloved. But Jesus said, “I am with you always.” (Matt 28:20) Nothing can separate us from His love; neither death nor life…neither the present nor the future…nor anything else in all creation (Romans 8-38-39). “Nothing” includes bullying, rape, shame, loss, breakups, failing grades, drugs, and any stressor or pain that is overwhelming your teen.
Personalize these scriptures for your teen, show them how God’s promises apply to them. “For I know the plans I have for [Becky],” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give [Becky] a future and a hope.” (Jer 29:11). Whether that future is tomorrow or the end of senior year, God is faithful. In your teen’s world, “plans” may mean finals, course selection, friendships, romance, spring break, or college applications. But God’s plans are higher and greater and they give each of us purpose. He wastes nothing and no one. Help your teen see herself as part of something greater, beyond herself. Serving others is a great way to develop a sense of purpose and meaning to life.
Many people report faith as one of their biggest protective factors to suicide. As your teen grows in his or her own faith, encourage them to rest in that faith. Our faith is a gift from God, enabled and empowered by His Spirit, to give us strength in moments of weakness. Tell your teen how your own faith has helped you through times of trouble or uncertainty, and how God helped you grow through that situation. May your family grow and thrive as you navigate the teen years together, with God’s blessing.