The first funeral I ever officiated as a pastor was for a 15-year-old high school student who chose to take his own life with a shotgun blast to the face.
When his parents told me they wanted an open casket funeral, I was a bit shocked and secretly questioned whether it was the right decision.
His parents chose to wrap his face with gauze so the wound itself would not be visible, but the gunshot had left an indentation on the left side of his head, allowing viewers to see a visible divot in the gauze.
Nearly 1500 high school students attended the funeral with standing room only, and as each one walked by his body, it became clear why his parents opted for an open casket; they wanted their son’s death to prevent another teenager from making the same tragic mistake.
I suppose it’s a similar reason I decided to write Thirteen Reasons Why Not: A Step-by-Step Guide to Helping Depressed & Suicidal Teenagers.
On a Sunday night in January 2017, I learned of a high school girl in my youth ministry who told an adult leader she was suicidal and had a plan to kill herself that same evening.
The policy I had communicated to each of my adult leaders was that anytime a student mentioned the word “suicide”, to bring me to that student so I could speak with them myself.
I never again wanted to preside over a funeral of any teenager, so I had made it my personal policy that I would speak with any suicidal student in my ministry.
I invited the suicidal student into a meeting room at the church along with another adult leader, and she didn’t hesitate whatsoever about sharing her suicidal thoughts.
She indeed had a plan, which consisted of going to a store after church so she could buy scissors to slit her wrists.
Anytime someone has an actual plan for their suicide, you need to get them immediate assistance.
As I was speaking with the girl with the plan, my wife knocked on the door of the meeting room. She was waving at me through the glass in such a way that I knew something was wrong, but there was no way I was going to leave the girl who had the plan. I assumed whatever situation my wife was dealing with wasn’t nearly as important as the situation I was facing.
I didn’t find out until later that my wife had also been approached by a separate suicidal student at the same time I was speaking to my own suicidal student. When my wife knocked on the door of my meeting room, she was attempting to follow the policy I had created by bringing me into her suicidal conversation.
While I was speaking with one suicidal student and my wife was speaking with a second suicidal student, a third suicidal student actually attempted suicide by jumping in front of traffic from our church parking lot.
Thankfully all three students are still alive today, but that night forced me to understand that my policy of bringing all suicidal students directly to me was a flawed policy.
I couldn’t be in more than one place at one time, and if there ever happened to be more than one suicidal student at a time, I needed other leaders to have the training and confidence to be able to properly handle the situation.
After that especially dark night, I began contacting counselors, therapists, and I even called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to put together a resource that could be used by my volunteer adult leaders if they were to ever find themselves in a conversation with a potentially suicidal teenager.
To be clear, if a student admits they are suicidal, help them get professional assistance. But the gray area in some conversations is trying to read between the lines and determine if a student is in danger of harming themselves.
To help triage students and get them the right help for their state of mind, I put together a suicide prevention training guide based on my research and interviews and gathered all my leaders during one of our monthly leadership training meetings. I apologized for having not trained them on the subject in the past, and then shared with them a series of practical steps in how to have a conversation with a depressed or suicidal teenager and how to get them the help they really need.
A few days after I had completed my first training of my leaders, Netflix released its first season of Thirteen Reasons Why, and the topic of suicide went viral in every middle and high school nationwide.
The plot of Thirteen Reasons Why unfolds in flashbacks, and while the main character had already taken her life at the beginning of the show, she is still seen in the flashbacks of her friends’ memories.
While I do not feel as though Thirteen Reasons Why glamorizes suicide as others have expressed, I do think the show creates an illusion that life continues on after suicide.
At the risk of sounding obvious, there is a truth worth emphasizing to those considering ending it all:
SUICIDE IS PERMANENT.
Someone who takes their own life does not have the opportunity to go back and see how their choice impacted the lives of other people. There is no coming back from suicide. It is final.
I started hearing from youth pastors around the country that they had never been trained in suicide prevention, and dozens of pastors and leaders in online forums began begging for any available resources on the subject.
Having just created and implemented my own training, I decided to package it in a book and get it out to the general public as a resource to help prevent suicide around the country.
The first edition of this book became a best-seller in four different categories on Amazon and has since been purchased in over 60 countries worldwide.
The most copies were consistently purchased from Japan, presumably because of Japan’s suicide forest and the country’s high suicide rate.
Several school districts throughout the world have included the contents of the book as part of their suicide prevention or anti-bullying curriculum.
Season 2 of Thirteen Reasons Why further explores topics students are facing in schools today. Like it or not, the show accurately depicts the culture of youth today. It is a saddening and sobering reality just how different a world students live in today compared to the world others experienced even just a decade ago.
While the show depicts real culture, that culture is not accepted or adopted by every student in every school. There are students who wish to hold onto values and morals. There are students who want to impact others in a positive way. There are students who want their voices heard about creating change and are willing to take a stand and take action.
I want to help those students fight for morality and positive change.
Once Netflix’s announced they would be launching the second season of Thirteen Reasons Why, I began creating the 2nd Edition of Thirteen Reasons Why Not. I published my 2nd Edition of my book the exact same day that Netflix released their second season of their show.
While the 2nd Edition still trains people on how to triage suicidal students, it includes some updates such as new phone numbers, changes to organizations, international assistance, and an added a section of hope.
The new section of hope gives a voice to help teens help teens. The section consists of handwritten letters written BY students TO students in an effort to provide encouragement and a reminder that we each have value and purpose.
A similar section of hope has also been added to the book’s website at 13reasonswhynot.com where teens can submit notes of encouragement to complete strangers around the world.
How can you help teens help teens prevent suicide? Here are five ways:
- Train yourself by getting a copy of Thirteen Reasons Why Not 2nd Edition.
- Leave feedback on Amazon to help others find the resource as well.
- Share this post on Facebook, Twitter or other social media.
- Send this post in a private message to someone you know who works with teens.
- Ask a teenager you know to submit a letter of encouragement to help teens who are suicidal.
Life is a gift. You can help others realize just how valuable it is.
ARE YOU SUICIDAL?
If you are currently experiencing suicidal thoughts, please reach out to your doctor, go to your nearest emergency facility, call your local emergency hotline (ie. 911), the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741 with “START” for immediate assistance and support from a real person. You are worth it.