The Joy of Helping the Hurting

Relief-Slider-2

The most familiar biblical image is most likely from Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.

Helping the hurting.

I cannot begin to estimate the number of people my wife, Michelle, and I have counseled since the suicide of our son, Jordan. Countless people who have, themselves, suffered the loss of a loved one due to suicide.

The first one to contact us happened within the first week after Jordan’s death.

Recently, I was counseling yet another precious individual who is suffering from what psychologist refer to as “complicated grief” (grief associated with suicide).

And I am, dare I say, grateful that I can.

My friends, Jesus didn’t pull any punches when, on the night before he would be crucified, told his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble (complicated grief, unspeakable suffering, depression, pain, etc.); but take heart, I have overcome the world.”  (emphasis mine)

Michelle and I have, over time, found that, after Jordan’s death, we had a choice to make: (1) live in despair, crawling up in a ball of pain and simply count time until we die, or (2) dump every last ounce of our pain on Christ, allowing him to take our pain and use it to give others hope which, in turn, gives purpose to our pain.

We chose “option 2.”

Every one of your reading this has experienced tremendous pain in your life. Never ever underestimate the power of your story to give hope to those who come behind you.

Paul encouraged the hurting Corinthian believers, “God comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.”

Because of the Cross and the Empty Tomb, there is hope.

As Billy Graham once said,

“I’ve read the last page of the Bible, it’s all going to turn out all right.”

The psalmist wrote, “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

Love to you all, Nick

After Suicide: What We Needed; What They Need

My name is Nick Watts.  On May 13, 2013, my son, Jordan, took his own life.  He was 19.

watts fam - 2012

NOTE: Should you be unfamiliar with my family’s history with suicide you can click here.

My public school presentation on Suicide Intervention lasts approximately 45 minutes and includes, among other points, everything from “becoming aware of the epidemic” and “myths about suicide” to clinical depression (the mental condition most associated with suicide) and general & specific steps to take when intervening with a suicidal person.  More information than I could share in a simple blog post.

That said, after speaking I am often asked by students and parents a number of  questions I don’t have time to address in my presentation.  I thought I would offer brief answers to a few of those questions here:

  1. When and how should I talk to my child about suicide?
  2. My child has a friend who is suicidal.  What do I tell my child?
  3. What do families need following the suicide of a loved one? (What do they not need?)
  4. What has most helped you and your family?

When and How Do I Talk to My Own Child About Suicide?

When: The topic of suicide normally doesn’t arise unless a family member, friend or celebrity takes their life.  When Netflix premiered their monster hit, 13 Reasons Why, in March 2017, much of the U.S. was talking about the show’s primary subject: teen suicide.  (You can read my blog on 13 Reasons Whyhere.)  While some choose to take advantage of such opportunities to talk about this difficult and uncomfortable topic, others choose to leave it alone – usually because they simply don’t know what to say.

In regard to our children, there are those things we like to call “teachable moments.”  Should an event prompt this particular topic, it would most definitely qualify as one of those moments.

The days of considering suicide a taboo topic are long gone.  Even the mainstream media has begun giving it quite a bit of press.  And for good reason.  From a 2016 article in the Houston Chronicle:

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the United States for people ages 10 to 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control‘s data from 2014, and is the 10th leading cause of death overall.

And from the New York Times:

“Suicide in the United States has surged to the highest levels in nearly 30 years, a federal data analysis has found…”

How:  To borrow a slogan from Nike, just do it.  I tell students at every assembly, “We parents are deeply flawed.  We’re just ‘old teenagers.’  Just like you, we laugh and we cry; we have good days, and bad days.  Sometimes we mess up.  Sometimes we get things flat wrong.  But, no one on planet earth loves you more than your parents.”  My point is this: as a parent, you don’t need a degree in psychology our counseling to talk to your child about suicide.  Just talk to them.  If they refuse to talk about it, this is a clear sign that they desperately need to talk about it.  (Refusing to talk is different than your child saying something to effect of, “I’m so hurt and confused.  I need a couple of days to process this.  Can we talk then?”)  Never force the conversation, but don’t sweep it under the proverbial rug either.

The suicide of a loved one or friend leaves us with endless questions.  A student approached me following one of my talks.  They said, “My friend took his life.  I was told if you commit suicide you go to hell.  Is that true?”  (I address that question at length here.)

Amidst all the questions regarding suicide, a cornerstone of truth I learned at one of the conferences I’ve attended on suicide intervention is this:

99% of those who attempt suicide don’t want to die – they just want the pain to stop.

No one enjoys talking about suicide (including me.)  But, should an event bring the topic into the public square, take advantage of it.

My Child Has a Friend Who is Suicidal?  What Do I Tell My Child?

For obvious reasons, I counsel people to always err on the side of caution when suspicious of a friend or family member being suicidal.  In other words, intervene immediately.   If you intervene and you’re wrong, at least they know you care.  If you don’t intervene, and you were right, you might well be soon attending a funeral.

I tell students in no uncertain terms, “Should you suspect a friend of yours of being suicidal, talk to them immediately.  Then tell them, ‘We’re going right now to talk to an adult (if at school, the counselor who will, in turn, notify the parents; if off campus, the parents; if the relationship between the student-at-risk and their parent is estranged, take them to the nearest adult whether that be a school counselor, teacher, coach, youth pastor, etc.).

Mental health professionals agree that communication is a key to helping “talk a suicidal person off the edge of the cliff.”  The Houston Chronicle story I referenced above – written due to a cluster of teen suicides – asserts:

The key to managing grief, mental illness and suicidal thoughts is communication. Often times, those who are struggling tend to isolate instead of communicate… Through it all, communication is key to breaking out of the cycle of hopelessness and connecting to a support system. Sometimes, [the person at risk is] at a place where they can’t communicate.  It’s then we must be their voice.

Regarding the quote immediately above – rather than “sometimes,” I would offer that “most times” the person-at-risk can’t communicate what’s going on – at least this would apply to the vast majority.  Simply put, they are unable.  Since they’re brain is “broken”, unable to connect with logic, the ability to intelligently articulate their crippling pain is out of cognitive reach.  Gradually losing all sense of reality, the individual begins to believe lies common to those considering taking their own life i.e. “my family won’t have to worry about me anymore, ” “the world will be better without me/I don’t matter,” “I’m a burden to everyone,” “the pain is too much to bear,” “there is no hope, no help,” etc.

If you’re reading this – and are presently suicidal – understand that the statements cited immediately above are complete and total lies.  You are loved.  You do matter.  Your family and friends love you and would be devastated at your loss.  The familiar axiom is: Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.  While your pain may seem to you beyond help, know that there is most certainly help and hope.  Should you not want to speak with a family member or friend, please call the Suicide Hotline at: 800-273-TALK (8255)

Lastly, a child who has a friend they suspect of being suicidal, may feel like they will be betraying their friend’s trust should they tell an adult; or, that it’s their responsibility to carry their friend through this crisis.  This is nonsense.  As a parent, tell them, “It is not your job or responsibility to carry a burden of this nature and weight on your own.  There are professionals who’ve gone to school and worked all their life for the sole purpose of helping hurting people just like your friend.”  Again, always err on the side of caution.

I encourage students, “Your friend may at first be very upset, even angry, with you for telling an adult.  Let them be angry.  You may well be saving their life, and saving their family from unspeakable grief.”

What Do Families Need After the Suicide of a Loved One?  What Do They Not Need?

Permit me to combine the answers to questions 3 & 4 in this one section since my response to “what families need and don’t need” is based on what my own family did and did not need.

I could write enough in response to this question to fill a book.  (My wife, Michelle, and I are planning on writing a book one day.)  But, let me offer just a few thoughts here.

I recently visited with a grieving parent who had lost their child to suicide. They said they felt like they were losing their mind.  (I know this to be true – I came very close to losing mine, ultimately having to be hospitalized.)  They continued, “My emotions are all over the place.”  I quoted to them the following statement Michelle had shared with me from one of the many resources she had since studied:

“Psychologists call grief associated with suicide ‘complicated grief.”

In short, grief associated with suicide is “all over the place.” It’s reckless.  Volatile. Unpredictable.  Explosive.  And exhausting.

There is a relentless search for answers that never come.  The endless, maddening, guilt-ridden, “If only I had (fill in the blank),” consumes you.

I read the following once and, from personal experience, testify that it is most certainly true:

“The death of a child is like losing your breath and never catching it again.  It’s a forever panic attack – feeling your heart dying as your soul is screaming for them.  No matter what you try to do you continue to lose your mind.”

Those who’ve lost a loved one to suicide don’t need cliches and trite comments i.e. “They’re in a better place,” or “God needed another angel,” etc.  What they need is someone to help them bear the metric-ton of pain that’s, at the moment, crushing their heart, soul and mind.  Don’t attempt to “fix” things.  There is no “fixing” it.  Don’t give in to the common temptation to provide “answers”.  They don’t exist.

Early on, a grieving family or individual doesn’t need advice.  Just your presence will do.

There is a type of love and compassion aptly called “the ministry of presence.”  A person who’s just lost a loved one to suicide may need to talk.  They may not.  Like Job’s three friends, (Job had just buried ten children) sitting quietly and sharing the person’s pain is often quite enough during those first days and weeks.  Interestingly, it was only when Job’s friends began talking that things went downhill quickly. 🙂

The default during that first year (at least for me) was to shut down, isolate myself, try to go to sleep and never wake up.  My family was paralyzed by grief.  Routine tasks such as cleaning, taking out the trash, yard work, etc., could’ve easily become monumental chores we simply didn’t have the strength to begin, much less accomplish.  What happened next was unexpected and extraordinary.

We had friends show up “out of the proverbial blue” to help.  They did our laundry.  They cleaned our house.  They brought us meals.  They mowed our lawn.  One person just showed up and cleaned every single window in our house.  For years, we’d been intending to take down the wallpaper in our kitchen and paint it.  Knowing that we would be unable to function for who knows how long, friends waited until we were gone one weekend, came over and completed the entire job.  Our first Christmas following Jordan’s death, friends came to our house and set up our tree for us and helped us decorate – something we could have never done on our own.

The family must be given as much time as necessary to process their grief.  We are all unique.  Hence, we all grieve uniquely, differently.  Some requiring more time than others.  Never should someone say – or even think – “You know, you should be over this by now.”  Only if you’ve walked in our shoes do you know how ignorant and arrogant a statement that is.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and John Kessler once wrote,

“The reality is that you will grieve forever.  You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it.  You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered.  You will be whole again but, you will never be the same.  Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to be.”

I spent eight months, alone, in shock.  I know this because I remember finally waking up one morning feeling somewhat different.  Somewhat less tormented.  A small piece of the burden had been lifted. I tried and tried to figure out what was different.  Then it hit me – this was the first morning I had awoken without trying to un-do Jordan’s death.  That  insanity had consumed my every waking moment for eight months.  It was exhausting.  It was maddening.  But, finally, my psychological bondage was loosening. Slowly.

A professional counselor told me, “As you probably know, the first year will be horrible.  But I must tell you – the second year will not be much better.”  I can’t thank that counselor enough.  Because he was exactly right.  For the first two years, we cried at least once every single day.  Moreover, it took my family 4 years to complete a full summer without at least one of us having a total emotional meltdown.

Note: I can’t/don’t share the following in public school contexts. But I can share it here.

Finally (please understand my answers here are based on a biblical worldview), over time, the family must be gently reminded of what is true:  because of the Cross and the Empty Tomb we have hope beyond this painful, messy life on planet earth.  The “complicated grief” associated with suicide is discombobulating.  The earth has shifted under your feet.  For us, God’s Word – the Bible – has served as our “true north” and helped us rediscover peace and hope.  After Jordan’s death, we hung Bible verses about pain and suffering and hope and peace and truth all over our house.  They were on the kitchen cabinets, every door, the walls.  It’s been well over four years and, still, a few are in the very location we placed them in May, 2013.

Some may write this off as silly, believing the Bible to be nothing more than fairy tales for the mentally weak.  But this I know (because I tried it): the only alternative – atheism – failed me in that it gave me no place to put my rage, my grief, my confusion, and my hopelessness.  It offered me no hope or peace or consolation. The God of the Bible provided all of that, and more.  (To read my blog, “Atheism Failed Me” click here.)

The Bible is neither sanitized nor white-washed.  It records life on planet earth as it really is:  painful.  Further, it tells us we have a Savior who, rather than being insulated from pain and suffering, is acutely acquainted with it, with the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, describing Christ as a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.”

If it ended there the Christian faith would be hollow and hopeless.  But it doesn’t end there.  Isaiah then writes, Surely he took up our painand bore our suffering.”

This is precisely why David of the Old Testament could confidently write, “[God] is close to the  brokenhearted; and he saves those who are crushed in spirit.”    

When Jordan was 9, during a very dark and painful period of our lives, with tears streaming down his cheeks, he came out of his room and said, “Dad, God told me to paint this for you.”  I just held him and wept.  After Jordan died, friends had it professionally framed with a small plaque at the bottom that reads, “When we hurt, God hurts.”  It has been displayed in our entrance hall ever since.

Every time I had a meltdown and felt like I was going to lose my mind I would begin quoting the 23rd Psalm.  Sometimes, my grief was so acute I was unable to mutter anything beyond the first few words: “The Lord is my shepherd.”  And that is one of two reasons I have that very phrase, in Hebrew, tattooed on my left forearm. (The other reason is because Jordan had a similar tattoo on his left forearm.)  Frequently, when I’m out and about, people will ask me, “What’s the story behind your tattoo?”  I tell them, “It says, ‘The Lord in my shepherd.’  My son died in 2013.  He was 19.  This Bible verse helped me not lose my mind.”

Here is truth:  because of Christ’s death and resurrection, our loved ones, in Christ, are more alive than we are – more alive than they’ve ever been.  Their suffering is not merely gone, it’s not even a memory.  Further, they are, at this moment, experiencing a level of joy and peace that is beyond mere human intellect, reason and logic.

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”

A reunion is coming.

For Jordan.

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

 

 

Our True North: the Word of God

After our son, Jordan, took his life the earth shifted underneath our feet. Our world was turned upside down.

We soon took scripture printed on copy paper and taped it to every door-jam, every mirror, every cabinet door – you get the idea. (A few of them are in the very spot we placed them 4 years ago.)

So, while the enemy assaulted us with lies: “life for you is over; your marriage is over; your son’s death is your fault; there is no God; etc….”, we made a conscious choice to focus on what we knew to be true: the infallible Word of God.

Both Matthew & Luke record the “showdown in the desert” between Satan and Jesus. Even a cursory reading reveals that, in light of Satan’s lies, Jesus responds with a single, devastatingly powerful weapon: the Word of God. Satan fled in defeat.

The same happened in our home. Oh – I’d be lying if I said it was easy. The spiritual battle was intensely brutal. But, in the end, Satan, the “father of lies”, was rendered impotent when confronted with the Truth.

Throughout this ordeal, my family learned – on a deeper level – what Jesus meant when he proclaimed, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Psalm 119 is almost entirely devoted to the exaltation of God’s Word. In verse 28, the psalmist prays, “My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word.”

Are you confused? Hurting? Afraid? Tired? Lost? Find your “true north” in the powerful Word of God.

Soli Deo Gloria, nick

Grief is a Part of Life – for Now

“Weeping may last for the night, but Joy comes in the morning.” (Ps 30:5)

In Sep., 2015, shortly after completing  nine days in the Psychiatric Ward of our local hospital (I ended up there due to a cluster of triggers associated with my 19 year old son’s suicide), I sat in my counselor’s office and listened intently as he shared with me how to learn to “live” again. Completely broken, and possessing zero self-esteem, he lovingly said to me, “Part of running the race (of life) is encouraging your fellow runners.”

In other words, you will rediscover joy in helping others rediscover theirs.

Allow me that privilege now.

One of the most influential Christian minds of the 20th century was CS Lewis. The following two paragraphs are taken from his book, “A Grief Observed,” written after the loss of his wife:

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid…”

“At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be [around] me. I dread the moments when the house is empty…”

After burying ten children, Job uttered, “My eyes have grown dim with grief; my whole frame is but a shadow.”

David, in Psalm 6, cried, “My eyes waste away because of my grief;…”

Bottom line: Grief is a part of life (for now).

But there is a passage in Isaiah that we, as believers, have heard so many times we may begin to miss its significance. About Jesus, Isaiah prophesied, “He was despised and rejected— a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief...” (emphasis mine)

It’s this passage from Isaiah that changes everything.

Where is God when we are grieving? He is in our grief, whispering to us, “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

This is what Paul meant when he wrote to the believers at Thessalonica, “And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers (your loved ones) who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope.”

Because of the Cross and the Empty Tomb, our loved ones who have passed on before us are more alive than we are. Alive! Joyful. Free of sickness and disease. In the very presence of Jesus Christ. The Lamb who is our Shepherd. The Alpha and Omega. The Almighty.

On the cross, Jesus proclaimed, “It is finished.” On the throne in Revelation, he proclaims, “It is done.” We live in the “in between.” But, because of the blood Christ shed at Calvary, we have hope not only for the future, but for the present as well. Blessed be his name!

And, until that day we meet him either through death, or when the cosmos peels back for his return, he is whispering to us, “I’ve got this. Trust me.”

“I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have [perfect] peace,” Jesus told his closest friends the night before he would die for us. “In the world you have tribulation and distress and suffering, but be courageous [be confident, be undaunted, be filled with joy]; I have overcome the world.”

(John 16:33; Amplified)

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

Suicide and the Bible – Part 2

After recently reading my  original blog, Suicide and the Bible,  a reader kindly wrote,

I was reading your “Suicide and the Bible”..and I just have a question. I’m genuinely curious to know what you think about this. So you’re saying nowhere in the Bible does it say suicide will send you to hell. You did call it murder (of yourself) however, which is sin. We are supposed to ask for forgiveness for all of our sins, so what if someone commits this “murder.” And dies instantly and didn’t get the chance to ask for forgiveness?

Here was my response:

That is a very good – and common – question.

Fortunately, the Gospel makes it perfectly clear that, at the moment we profess our faith in Christ, we are redeemed, purchased by Christ’s blood, and seen, in God’s eyes, as 100% righteous and holy (2 Cor 5:17, 21).

The answer to your particular question comes down, actually, to a different (but related) question: Can a child of God lose their salvation?

Clearly, the Scriptures state we cannot. Paul describes our salvation as a gift: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”  A gift is something we receive, not earn.  And since we did nothing in our power to earn it (Christ, alone, earned it for us on the cross) there is nothing we can do to un-earn it, or lose it.  In short, you will find no list of sins in the Bible that cause us to lose what was purchased for us by Christ’s blood on the cross.  This includes the sin of un-confessed daily sin.

Further, Jesus uses the phrase, “born again”, to give us insight into this miracle called eternal life. It is significant that Jesus chooses to use this particular phrase.  Consider this:  regardless of how badly we may treat our parents, we can never not be their child. In other words, we can never be “un-born” as their children.  Likewise, we can never be “un-born again” as a child of God.  Our position in Christ is based on God, not us. And our heavenly Father’s grip on us is eternal; it can’t be undone. Read on…

Jesus continues this truth in John 10 where, speaking of “his sheep” (those who have, at some point in their life, professed their faith in him) says, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” (vss 28-29)  In short, our eternity in heaven with God is as sure as God’s Word is sure.

Lastly, I am 100% confident that, when I breathe my last – whether it is by natural causes, or premature and unexpected as in an automobile accident – I will not have confessed every single sin I have ever committed in my screwed-up life. And I’m fairly certain this applies to every other Christian on planet earth as well. But, thank God Almighty that, like Paul, we can confidently say, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!…” (Romans 7:24-25)

Moving from the theological to the practical, a brief word:

There is another side of this issue that is not often enough addressed.  That’s the issue of a medically diagnosed Mental Illness (a genuine misfiring of the brain’s chemical make-up; a form of insanity.)  Information and data about the disease of Mental Illness is readily available from many reputable web sites such as the Mayo Clinic, the American Psychiatric Association, and  the National Alliance on Mental Illness. When someone dies of cancer, we never question that a sinful – it wasn’t their fault they contracted cancer.  Yet, there is a stigma attached to a person dying with a medically diagnosed Mental Illness. A person posted the following comment to one of my posts:  “From a mental health perspective, depression is an illness. There should be no stigma attached to death from any illness. “

The great majority of people who experience a mental illness do not die by suicide.  However, of those who die from suicide, more than 90 percent have a diagnosable mental disorder.  This would mean they ultimately died of a disease.  This issue can be fuzzy.  But it’s definitely worth mentioning and deserves serious discussion.

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

FYI – I included the following at the bottom of my original blog, Suicide and the Bible.  I include it here again.

NOTE:  If you have been, or are, suicidal, please do not misconstrue my intent here by interpreting this blog as it being ok to take your life since the Bible clearly says, if you’ve professed your faith in Christ, you will go to heaven. Suicide is never the answer to one’s problems.  I know from personal experience the devastation suicide has on a family and friends.  If you are depressed and/or suicidal, get help immediately. Talk to someone – anyone.  Help and hope are available in abundance. (Click here for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.) The sole purpose of this blog is to give peace to those of us who have been forced to live through this horrific tragedy.

The Frightening Thought of Being Used by God

Have you ever believed in something so strongly, so passionately, you wanted the entire world to know about it?

I told my wife, Michelle, “You know – when you have a cause you strongly believe in, you want to get the word out to the masses. But, when it does begin to get out to the masses it is somewhat terrifying.”

I recently wrote a blog about suicide and the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. Apparently, it struck a chord with the public because, in a week’s time, it was viewed just under 200,000 times in over 150 countries.   In addition, two local TV stations ran stories on it.  You can view those stories here, and here.

As the blog I wrote spread I have been forced to continually fight off fear and insecurity.  I’ve lost count of how many people from all over the U.S. – and close to home – have contacted me to talk about their own painful journeys.  The more people who contacted me, the more I thought to myself, “Am I really equipped to help these people??  I don’t even have my own screwed-up life figured out – how in the world am I supposed to help them?”  The responsibility of “owning the mission” God assigns to a person is sobering – even discouraging, because we tend to feel so inadequate – just like a man in the Bible named Moses.

I’ve thought a lot about Moses – a deeply flawed “failure” who, after a royal and privileged upbringing, had been consigned to herding goats. For 40 years. In relative isolation.

Then, one day God shows up and gives Moses an assignment that Moses clearly believes is beyond his skill set.  As God informs Moses he is to return to Egypt and face Pharaoh, Moses is, like I have been recently, somewhat terrified. Five times Moses tells God, in essence, “You’ve got the wrong guy!”   (You can read the story in the biblical book of Exodus, chapters 3-4.)

As I consider my own insecurities and inadequacies, I return to Moses and his own “burning bush experience.” And I remember what God, in essence, told him: “This is not your mission – it’s mine. And, because it’s mine, I will see it through. I will give you courage. I will speak through you. I will protect you. I’ve got you. Will it, at times, be scary? Of course. But, never forget: the battle is the Lord’s. And I’ve never lost a battle. Now go.”

Last thing: when I think about Moses, my mind is always drawn to a quote by author/pastor, Chuck Swindoll, who wrote,

“For his first 40 years, Moses thought he was somebody. For his next 40 years, Moses thought he was nobody. And for his final 40 years, Moses discovered what God can do with a nobody.”

Use me, Lord.  Please.

“When I am afraid, I will trust in you.” (Psalm 56:3)

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” is not merely Dark, it’s Dangerous

“Welcome to your tape.”

If you’ve had the opportunity to view Netflix’s white-hot series, 13 Reasons Why, you’ll have no problem understanding the quote cited above.  If you’re unfamiliar with the series, it’s a 13 part Netflix original fictional series about teenage bullying and suicide.  The series, based on the 2007 book by Jay Asher, concludes with the main character, Hannah Baker, taking her life in a very graphic portrayal.  I won’t include a synopsis of the story here.  (You can read about the plot here.)  But I will say this: the series is as controversial as it is popular.

NOTE:  Since I posted this blog, two local news stations have aired stories on it.  You can view those stories here, and here.

Before I continue, please allow me to make one thing clear:  I’m not a professional counselor.  But I do have intimate experience with this topic.  

  • First, I have worked with teenagers most of my vocational life. 
  • Second, and far more importantly, my 19 year old son took his life in 2013 So I write from the perspective not of a Hollywood script, but real life.

I was made aware of the series recently by a public school counselor who wrote that she had seen an increase in students coming to see her due to watching this series.  She wrote,

I had a crisis appointment this morning and a patient taken to the hospital due to extreme suicidal thoughts after watching this series. As I called the crisis line to activate the crisis protocol, the crisis worker on the phone told me they have had several incidents the past 2 weeks since the show aired of having to activate crisis protocol after people had watched the show and began acting out suicidal plans.

Although I didn’t need Hollywood to inform me of the horror of a teenage child’s suicide, I decided to watch the series because (1) it’s extremely popular with teens, and (2) I thought watching it would help me be more informed since I frequently speak to teens in public schools and churches about suicide & suicide intervention/prevention.

I was unprepared for what I was about to watch. 

Given my family history, watching the series was, for me, brutal.  Having found my son that day in 2013, when I watched Hannah’s parents discover their girl’s lifeless body, I screamed and wept.  Immediately, I knew I needed to make parents aware of 13 Reasons Why as soon as I possibly could.  But, frankly, I was so messed up following the final episode, it took me a number of days to compose myself and be able to articulate my conviction about the series in, hopefully, a clear and intelligent manner.

For those who may read into this blog, “You’re overreacting since your child took his life,” allow me to direct your attention to a letter sent to parents from the administration at Shawnee Mission South High School in Overland Park, KS, via their Facebook page warning all parents about the series.  You can access the letter here. (A simple Google search will reveal numerous school districts issuing warnings about the series.  Here’s one article.  Here’s another.) Additionally, a public school counselor from Maine shares her strong concerns here.  Finally – and this should bring clarity as to how traumatizing the series is –  People Magazine was one of several news outlets reporting that therapy dogs were brought onto the set to comfort the actors.

Parents should know that, in an attempt to appear like they’re portraying “reality”, the producers and writers not only pushed the limit but, in my opinion (and others: see below), carelessly crossed the line.

NBC News ran a story entitled, Netflix’s ’13 Reasons Why’ Carries Danger of Glorifying Suicide, Experts Say.  (Read the entire article here.)  The article states, in part,

Critics have lauded the show, which has earned stellar ratings, including a 91 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s also been the most tweeted about program so far this year, Variety reported. But some mental health professionals feel it is a dangerous fantasy that romanticizes suicide

“Sequences of terrible things happen to Hannah, and we don’t get a feel for her internalization until she kills herself,” Dr. Victor Schwartz, medical director of the JED Foundation, told NBC News. “None of that stuff is made clear because it’s focused on the horrible things people have done to her. The whole thing is an extended revenge fantasy.”

Phyllis Alongi, clinical director of the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, said…, “Netflix isn’t going to pull it and kids are watching it, and they’re binge watching it without anyone helping them process it.  We feel it was done irresponsibly and we don’t agree with many portrayals including of Hannah’s death, memorialization, and placing blame on others.”

Alongi said suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24 and that the number is increasing.

Dan Reidenberg, a psychologist and Executive Director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), warns,

“One of the ways [the series] really failed is they never talked about treatment options; they never gave a viable alternative for [Hannah]… We just want people to understand that it’s fiction, not fact. It’s about helping people understand the reality of suicide.”  [However], “The show does not address mental illness or present viable alternatives to suicide.”

Significantly, Reidenberg, shares,

“…he was contacted by Netflix and asked to provide guidance… He said he told Netflix that they shouldn’t go ahead with the project.” (See entire article here.)

SAVE offers a “Tips for Watching 13 Reasons Why” here.

The Chicago Tribune ran an article entitled, ’13 Reasons Why’ Offers Wrong Solution to Teen Struggles.  The author, Jack VanNoord, wrote,

“Netflix, I love you. I really do. But on this one you not only got it wrong, you got it dangerously wrong.”

Sure, you will find many complimentary reviews online of the series.  But almost all are directed at the “nuts & bolts” of the production i.e. directing, acting, etc.   The romanticizing of suicide and the total absence of intervention i.e. medical attention, professional counseling, etc., is what makes the series both dark and dangerous for those who are depressed,  suicidal or have considered suicide as an option at some point in their life.

Yahoo News posted,

“In a public statement, the National Association of School Psychologists issued a warning against viewing the series to parents of “vulnerable youth.”

Alexa Curtis, writing for Rolling Stone, agrees:

For teens who are battling mental health issues, witnessing the end of a life as easily as the show portrayed it could help desensitize kids to this very serious matter.

She continues,

Before the suicide, Hannah admits to a counselor that she is feeling lost and empty – clear signals of depression. As she talks about her sadness and anger, instead of being admitted to a clinic, the distracted employee simply gives her a box of tissues to heal her wounds. Had 13 Reasons Why showcased other forms of outreach, like therapy, teens watching it might realize that there is always an option that doesn’t include self-harm.

And, Sezín Koehler, writing for the Huffington Post, and accusing the series of romanticizing suicide, holds nothing back:

You don’t get any more romantic than a charming dead girl speaking from beyond the grave — on cassette tapes, no less — about everyone who wronged her, as if she’s merely hosting a podcast. Whenever suicide is presented as the only option,…we are in dangerous territory. And that’s exactly what “13 Reasons Why” does.

Granted, fans of 13 Reasons Why argue that the series “encourages conversations” about bullying and suicide.  That is true. After all, you and I are having a “conversation” about it here.  However – and this is my sole contention – a person who is severely depressed and/or suicidal is not in a healthy place psychologically.  And, if they should watch this series alone they are entering a world that is both dark and dangerous.  Dark because the series is virtually void of hope.  And dangerous because of what the series can prompt in the mind of someone who is already suffering from mental illness i.e. clinical depression, bipolar disorder, etc.

Lastly, allow me to offer three strong recommendations:

  1. Parents – I strongly caution all teens who choose to view the series. There are healthier ways (read: less triggering ways) to have needed dialogue about bullying and suicide. However,…. if your child insists on watching the series – watch it with themBe aware:  the show is full of profanity, obscenity, two graphic rape scenes, and, of course, included in its final episode is the graphic scene of Hannah Baker taking her life.  But, if your child insists on watching it, watch it anyway – with them.  Talk about each episode immediately after that episode ends.  If your child has already watched it, visit with them immediately about it and consider watching a few episodes yourself.  If your child gets offended that you’re “poking your nose into their business” tell them, “I have that right. I’m your parent.  No one on this planet loves you more than I do.”  Always, as a parent, err on the side of caution.
  2. Teens – (even if you’re not a teen) If you’ve viewed the series – many of you will be affected emotionally (how can you not be?)   If you suffer from bullying, depression, suicidal thoughts – I beg you – talk to somebody immediately  (a parent, sibling, grandparent, teacher, friend, youth pastor, coach, counselor).  The devastation from losing you is unfathomable to the human mind.  I know this from personal experience. It may sound trite, but “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”  I know you may not be able to (and, most likely, can’t) see the light of hope at the moment – but that’s what we are here for: to carry you, to share your load, and help you see the light againThere is a God – and He loves you.  You are awesome.  You are beautiful.  You matter. You are not alone. You are so very loved.  You cannot be replaced.  And help is available in abundance Many people have gone to school for many years for the sole purpose of being equipped to help you through your dark time of crisis.  Do not do anything to harm yourself.  I repeat, do not do anything to harm yourself.  Your death is irreversible and will leave a gaping wound in the lives of your family and friends.
  3. Friends – If you are a friend of someone you suspect of being bullied, suffering from depression, or having suicidal thoughts, talk to them immediately.  Ask them if they’ve watched 13 Reasons Why.  Get them talking – whatever it takes.  As I recommended to parents, always err on the side of caution.  If the friend you suspected of suicidal thoughts is genuinely ok, everyone is good.  But, if you’re right – you may have well saved a life.

Bottom Line:  While some will disagree with what I’ve written here, please understand I write from the perspective of a parent who’s lost a teenage child to suicide.  Like me, my son, Jordan, suffered from crippling depression.  May 13, 2013, was the worst day of my, and my family’s, life. My effort here is, by making parents aware of the series, to simply try and prevent this tragedy from happening to anyone else on planet earth.  While 13 Reasons Why will not serve as a trigger to every viewer, it clearly will (and has) to many.  If the series has not yet prompted dialogue in your home, perhaps this blog will.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline1-800-273-8255

For Jordan Watts

For Narnia

I love you all, Nick

“In this world you will have trouble (bullying, depression, pain), but take heart – I have overcome the world.”  Jesus Christ  (John 16:33)