The cultural conversation surrounding 13 Reasons Why, (a story about a teen committing suicide and telling her peers 'why' from beyond the grave) has some people grateful someone is speaking up, and others outraged at content they fear might encourage other teens to take the same path.
This leaves the Church (especially teens and parents of teens) with the decision to engage, or be silent.
To fully understand the conversation, you need some background on the current state of adolescent mental health. Today in America, almost 10 million teens (about 25%) have reported a significant episode with depression or anxiety in the last year.
This is only those who have gone to see someone about it… Most don’t. This means that most likely a strong majority feel alone in a way that we are clearly not hearing or understanding.
The hard thing about the article cited above is that it’s full of uncomfortable facts… 40% of those who self harm are males (in case you thought your home had dodged a bullet.) It also points out that some leading causes are academic pressure, social media, and growing up in a world of economic and political uncertainty - Not sexual abuse or single parent homes (in case you thought you had dodged other bullets.)
A quick disclaimer to those who parent middle and high schoolers. 13 Reasons Why is not something I would recommend students watch (though most already have). I can't honestly even recommend parents watch it with older teens. However, I do believe it's something that parents probably need to watch - just keep the fast forward button handy. It not only depicts things that are immoral (like language, bullying, and pre-marital sexual activity), but also traumatic like sexual assault and self-harm. The reality of high school environments and youth culture may be hard to stomach, but staying engaged with your kid is worth it. Just because I don’t think it’s something students themselves should watch, it’s definitely something that deserves dialogue around your dinner table. This is how we, as believing parents, leverage culture (versus chase it) when it comes to teaching our children.
When I look at the life of Christ and how he addressed cultural issues, I don’t think His answer would be either a) Engage the conversation or b) Disengage, and hide in the bunker of Christian sub-culture. Instead, I think His answer might be c) Change the conversation altogether.
Changing The Conversation
During the ministry of Jesus, the cultural conversation in Jerusalem was surrounding the oppression of the Jews by the Roman Kingdom. Jesus used the language of this conversation when he came preaching “the gospel of the kingdom”. In his inaugural address (Matthew 5-7), he explains how this new kingdom was to work and its people were to live and think.
In the current conversation surrounding Rome, they were asking, “How do we make our world or this kingdom (Rome) a better place?" Instead Jesus changed the conversation and said, "wrong question, here’s a different/better kingdom altogether.”
Jesus then said you have to “Repent, for the kingdom is near”. This word for Repent may be the most misunderstood word in the Church. We’ve often been told that it means to “turn around” or “change course” - making it about turning away from sin. This is actually the meaning of the Old Testament word for repentance, “shûb”.
This Greek word for Repentance, is completely different: Metanoia
- Meta - change or transform (think metamorphosis)
- Noia - knowledge or thought
- Metanoia = Transform the way you think.
So when Jesus said metanoia, because a new kingdom is coming, He was saying, I want to totally change the way you think. In order to understand his Kingdom, you need a paradigm shift to understand this kingdom; a whole new worldview.
A part of being functional members of said kingdom is looking at the world through a whole new lens. Our task then as a witness and representation of Christ on the earth, is to see how this new way of thinking and living comes to bear on the current conversation surrounding youth culture and mental health.
The first problem with the conversation surrounding teen suicide, mental health, and adolescent social environments, is that it’s focus is on symptom not sickness.
Encouraging teens to “talk about it” with someone, may bring some relief, but not true or lasting change. Peer group management also serves a valuable purpose. These things can be cathartic, but that doesn’t necessarily make them solvent. It’s like giving someone with a life threatening disease 'something for the pain’, but not being able to offer a cure.
Jesus approached life change in an entirely different way...
A New Creation
The Gospel isn’t our own religious brand of self-help, but rather a transformation from the inside out. Jesus came into the environment where the symptoms of brokenness and sin were managed by The Law. The Law was an external set of standards that attempted to make people behave better from the outside in.
Instead this new kingdom offered to make you a new person. Jesus came and said, "I will give them a new heart and a new mind”. Paul says we're "a new creation, the old things have passed away and the new things have come.” While self-help methods set out to improve the person and modify behavior, Jesus said, “No, I’m starting over with a new person altogether". While the law worked from the outside in, the Gospel worked from the inside out.
By sending God's Spirit to come and live on the inside of those in this new Kingdom.
An important caveat to symptom management is that much of mental health is a physical problem, not just a spiritual one. I’m not recommending the faulty idea that all psychological problems and pressures are spiritual and a result of your sin. While they are a result of sin in the larger sense (all sickness and brokenness are because of the fall), they aren’t the result of YOUR sin (John 9:3). It’s important to celebrate the work of mental health professionals and modern medicine’s role in aiding the physiological and emotional health of young people, while still not expecting them to redeem the heart of man.
The second problem with the conversation lies in attempting to find a solution by changing environments. Just like the Law was an external environment creator that failed to keep our nature in check, our attempts to change youth culture and high school milieu will also do nothing to change the inside of people. Behavior modification and environmental factors will never be the complete answer.
What Do I Do If My Teen Is struggling?
First of all, what are the signs?
- Increasingly consumed by social media and their technology
- Drastic Mood swings and emotional shifts (e.g. extroverted to introverted)
- Change in friends and peer group
- Change in sleep patterns
- Wanting to change classes or schools
These are all helpful indicators, but it won't replace open and honest dialogue with your teen. Once they've expressed that there's an issue, then we can move towards solutions:
- With your teens knowledge and preferably permission, have as many people join their "team" as possible... Teachers, youth pastor, small group leaders, school counselors, professional counselors, mentors, etc. There's no limit to the amount of resources your child is worth!
- Pray with your children every day. Sounds simple... It is... Just not easy.
- After your students have found the right peer groups (including some in the local Church), have them open up about their struggles with peers that are stronger than them in their emotional health, and stronger than them in their faith!
- Look for resources - Written from a Christian perspective, one of my favorites is, A Relentless Hope: Surviving The Storm Of Teen Depression by Gary Nelson.
All these are helpful and practical tools to use, while still encouraging your student to continually take one step closer to Christ - because environment, symptom, and peer management will never replace soul-transformation.
How do I know?
For 9 months in my early teenage years I found myself buried in the deep fog of depression, feeling like the only way out was to take my own life. I was wrong… My only way out was actually the transformative power of Jesus. Immersion in the scripture, authentic community, spiritual counsel, and prayer would win out on my path to healing and wholeness.
The question and the answer have always been the same for the Church. How can we let the healing remedy of the Gospel, and the crimson salve of the Cross, come paint our dark world in a new and brighter light?