Stewards of life

Catholic Church offers caring solutions to stem the rising tide of teen suicide

By Emily Booker

“God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things that they might exist.” Wisdom 1:13-14

Evan is a good kid — decent grades, never in trouble. He plays baseball. He has a group of friends. He’s planning on going to college the year after next. He wants to be a stockbroker.

But Evan starts avoiding his friends. They ask what’s wrong, and he says “nothing.” He doesn’t always show when they invite him over. He ignores their texts, then gets mad when they make plans without him.

His A’s and B’s become C’s and D’s. When his parents ask why his grades slipped, he says that grades don’t matter. Nothing matters. School is too boring. School is too stressful. He’s no longer sure he’s going to go to college.

In the locker room, Evan worries his teammates will notice the small series of scars on his thighs. It would be embarrassing to admit that he cuts. But part of him hopes someone will notice. They don’t.

The last thing he says to his parents as he heads up to his room is that he loves them. And it’s true. But he can’t shake the feelings and thoughts overwhelming him: You’re worthless. You’re a screw-up. Nobody likes you. You can’t fix this. You ruin everything. It’d be better if you were dead. No one would even care. It’s too much.

The next day, the entire school is in shock. Evan was a good kid. He had so much potential. What happened?

His parents are heartbroken. His friends are anguished: he had been kind of distant lately, but they had no idea it was this bad, they try to explain. Why did he take his own life? What could they have done?

Evan isn’t real, but his situation is playing out over and over in high schools across the country. The loss of any life is tragic, but the loss of a young life, one wrecked by despair and desperation, hits even harder. Why do some teenagers, with lives full of potential and endless possibilities, succumb to suicide? And how do we, as a community, respond?

On the frontline

Kat Coy, a guidance counselor at Knoxville Catholic High School, encourages open discussion with teens about their thoughts and concerns.

Counselors and teachers at the Diocese of Knoxville’s two high schools are on the frontline of this crisis as students struggle to find help for their own issues or worry about their friends.

According to the Centers for Disease Control’s latest data, suicide is the third leading cause of death among those ages 10-14 and the second leading cause of death among those 15-24. Suicide rates have increased over the past few years among all age groups, and teens are no exception. Between 2007 and 2015, suicide rates increased by more than 30 percent among teen boys and doubled among teen girls. In 2015, the suicide rate was 14.2 per 100,000 teen boys and 5.1 per 100,000 teen girls.

This increase has not gone unnoticed. The conversation around teen suicide arose recently after the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why gained popularity among young viewers. The series depicts graphic incidents of bullying, drug use, and rape that led high schooler Hannah Baker to suicide. Her character leaves behind tapes for her classmates that explain their roles in her decision. Worried responses to the series led Netflix to add a tag after each episode that included mental health resources.

13 Reasons Why conveys dark subject matter that some parents might not want their children to watch. Others might choose to watch it with their children so they can discuss the topics the show addresses. Media such as this aimed at teens — and even pre-teens — continues to push the envelope, exposing them to topics that they are not ready to fully process.

At the same time, the issues brought up in the show are real problems that teens face every day. Bullying, isolation, drugs, harassment, sexual assault, mental health problems, and suicidal thoughts are all very real in the lives of many teenagers. For some, they turn to drastic, fatal acts to escape the suffering.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of” (CCC 2280).

Yet circumstance, stress, and illness can lead to despair, in which preserving one’s life becomes a challenge. Teens are in a period of life where they are experiencing stressful social situations for the first time, where they are placing more pressure on themselves, and where their hormones are fluctuating and brains still forming.

It can be difficult to see the worthiness and beauty of life in a society that often measures worth by material success or popularity.

‘There is no break from the bullying’

Bullying has not changed much over the years. Teens still face cliques, ridicule, and isolation.

They still struggle to find their individual voice while fitting in with the crowd. But the ways in which teens interact have changed. Technology and social media dominate their communication. Cyberbullying means the bully no longer has to confront his victim. He can hide behind a screen and strike at any time.

Smartphones mean constant conversation and updates. A tweet at 8 p.m. A snap at 1 a.m. A text during the middle of class. Little bits of information are in the palm of your hand at every moment, an opportunity for connection or validation or rejection or mockery.

Kat Coy, a counselor at Knoxville Catholic High School, said that technology has changed how teens talk to friends . . . and enemies.

“The thing with bullying — you used to have a break from bullying, right? So if bullying’s happening here [at school], you would go home. And you’d have from four until the next morning a break. Now, you don’t have a break. They can bully you during the day, anyway they want. They can do it all night long,” she said.

“It can be unbelievable. It’s fatigue-inducing. Trauma happens, absolutely, as a result. But it is that access — they can access you at any time. And there is no downtime. There is no break from the bullying. …In fact, some things can go viral, just overnight.”

Cyberbullying cannot be identified as a sole cause of suicide, but it can increase feelings of humiliation, isolation, and hopelessness among its young victims.

Even when not battling cyberbullies, teens can suffer from their constant texting, personal messages, and use of social media. While technology makes many everyday tasks easier, it also masks key components of communication like tone and facial expression. Emojis cannot adequately replace face-to-face conversation.

Mrs. Coy said that she’s observed the way technology has changed how teens communicate with their friends. They tend to communicate more often, but that communication takes place over texts and PMs.

“They rely so much more on technology and are losing some of that personal touch. So kids will misread a text and think they meant one thing when they meant something else,” she said.

“It’s just so easy to text, and we’ve really moved away from those conversations where you can really see things in someone’s eyes…you miss the nuances of face or whatever.”

And while this is a hazard for adults as well, most teens have grown up surrounded by social media and texting. They don’t always realize how impersonal their communication style can be.

“I think that parents need to be aware that it’s normal for teens. That’s normal — they Snapchat, Instagram,” Mrs. Coy said.

Social media also can paint a distorted picture of others’ lives. People want to show the best of themselves online: pictures of smiling friends, travel adventures, successes, and awards. Many teens compare their lives to the sanitized, perfected versions of others’ lives.

Rocco Mansueto, a guidance counselor and head wrestling coach at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga, has seen the stress teens put themselves under by comparing themselves on social media.

“The problem with social media is we often depict a perfect world,” he said. “So social media is the best of the best. Everybody puts their best foot forward via social media. And often social media is the culprit behind our thought process that we are not sufficient enough, because everything we’re seeing is the best of everybody else.

“Social media often depicts a perfect world, and I think that’s very difficult for our kids, because it’s constantly relaying the message that what they’re doing is not good enough or that they’re not good enough, which is totally inaccurate.”

Father Michael Hendershott, who teaches religion at Knoxville Catholic High School, is among the many resources KCHS students can go to for assistance in personal, social, and academic issues.

Teens compare themselves to these unrealistic representations. They also attach their self-worth to how they measure up to these representations or to how popular they are on social media.

“They’re constantly comparing themselves to other people,” Mr. Mansueto said. “Social media often depicts the best of that person. And it makes us feel bad when things aren’t perfect in our lives, and the reality is it never will be perfect. Perfection is a dangerous pill because it’s unattainable and it’s unrealistic. We have to be OK with flaws, and we have to be OK with failure.”

Father Michael Hendershott, associate pastor at Holy Ghost Church in Knoxville and a religion teacher at KCHS, has seen students obsessed with how they are perceived online. When they don’t sense their own value in real life, they search for it in snaps and tweets and chats.

“A lot of it seems to be tied up in the question of identity: who am I? Am I worthy? Am I valued? Do I have a value? Oftentimes people don’t know their loveable-ness until they experience it. Many people seem to have a hole there that infinite, unconditional love can fill, that no human can do.

“We have to apply this to our understanding of who God is. That, therefore, can give us a cause for hope that when He looks on us, He loves us unconditionally — not if you have a good snap stream, not if you have a lot of likes on an Instagram post, which seems to be the root of a lot of these suicidal thoughts: that they’re not good enough as this other person.”

While technology and social media can serve as valuable tools for education, networking, and staying in touch, they can also be misused, especially by teens who put too much emphasis on likes and comments or become addicted to their devices.

“Not saying that everything is bad, but they’re so attached to this electronic, online self that they don’t measure up — they don’t measure up to their friends,” Father Hendershott said. “They feel so empty and depressed. And they say, ‘Father, we’re trapped. How do we get out?’ That’s the kind of words that they’re using when it comes to this slavery of their devices.”

This pressure to be perfect and live up to unrealistic expectations can destroy one’s self-esteem and contribute to feelings of worthlessness or depression.

The depression factor

A large factor in teen suicide is mental health. Depression is a condition that can be caused by stress, life transitions, or chemical imbalances that affect thought and mood. It is much more than simply feeling sad. It is overwhelming.

A person with depression might feel emotionally numb, physically exhausted, attacked, and defeated. Activities and people that normally bring him joy feel empty. He feels guilty that he can’t feel “normal.” He worries that he’s a burden to those he loves. He’s afraid it will only get worse.

Deacon Joe Stackhouse hands out
doughnuts to students prior to class. Deacon
Stackhouse, who serves at Immaculate Conception Church in Knoxville, also teaches ethics and philosophy at Knoxville Catholic High School.

An estimated 12.5 percent of youth age 12-17 experienced at least one major depressive episode in 2015, according the National Institute of Mental Health. Mental disorders are found in a vast majority of people who have died by suicide. It is important to address mental health and to encourage teens to feel comfortable coming forward for help. Counseling, medication, or a combination of the two can greatly help.

Some still hold a stigma against mental health. Those who suffer don’t want to been seen as weak. But treating a chemical imbalance in the brain is the same as treating any other medical ailment. Ignoring it does not help, according to mental health professionals. Some signs that a teenager is suffering from depression and/or suicidal thoughts are withdrawal and isolation. Grades slip. They no longer find interest in activities they used to enjoy or they stop hanging out with friends. They don’t identify with any peer group. Their sleep patterns change. They are more angry or irritable. These types of changes are sudden and more extreme than the typical changes that come with growing up.

If a teen says he or she is going to harm or kill themselves, it’s essential to get immediate help. Listen. Help them find crisis intervention and follow-up counseling. If you are a peer, tell an adult.

The sad fact is that it’s impossible to prevent every suicide. Some suicidal teens are good at hiding the warning signs. That’s why it is important to be pre-emptive — know the situations and risks that can lead to suicidal thoughts, recognize the warning signs, and let teens know that it is OK to speak up about their fears and feelings.

Mental Health 101 is a curriculum developed by the Mental Health Association of East Tennessee to provide mental health information and suicide prevention resources to middle and high school students across the state.

After an East Tennessee high school saw three of its students die from suicide last year, the Mental Health Association of East Tennessee presented a program for the school’s parents on noticing signs of mental health issues and how to react.

A response to suffering

Deacon Joe Stackhouse teaches ethics and philosophy at Knoxville Catholic High School. He also provides ethics counseling in the diocese, particularly in regard to biomedical ethics.

“I think suicide is really always a response to suffering of one kind or another,” he said.

Suicide, he explained, is a choice made when people think that they are better off dead than alive. This faulty assumption leads them to reject the life they have been given.

When they hold no hope that life will improve or they doubt that their life has any worth, then they begin to see suicide as an option.

Another faulty assumption suicidal people often hold, Deacon Stackhouse said, is that what actions we take in this life have no bearing on the next.

“We don’t know that. As a matter of fact, our faith tells us the very opposite,” he said.

Suicide is never anyone’s first option. It is a decision made out of suffering and despair. Society tells us that life should always fulfill every want. But suffering is a part of life. Everyone experiences stress, loss, loneliness, and sadness.

Suffering, in any form, can feel like a black pit — overwhelming, unbearable. But our faith teaches us that suffering can be transformed into something good.

Pope St. John Paul II wrote about the power of redemptive suffering, pointing out that suffering is not pointless. Jesus suffered. When we suffer, He understands how we feel. Those suffering can unite their trials with the suffering of Jesus.

In his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris, Pope St. John Paul II said, “… the Church is continually being built up spiritually as the Body of Christ. In this Body, Christ wishes to be united with every individual, and in a special way he is united with those who suffer.”

Jesus sought out the suffering, the sick, and the lonely. He suffers with them, and they suffer with Him.

“But if at the same time in this weakness there is accomplished his lifting up, confirmed by the power of the resurrection, then this means that the weaknesses of all human sufferings are capable of being infused with the same power of God manifested in Christ’s Cross. In such a concept, to suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ,” Pope St. John Paul II said.

It is through Christ’s suffering that the world was redeemed. As Christians we are called to share in that suffering. There is a purpose. The Church teachings on suffering offer hope, even in dark times.

Suffering is deeper than pain; it carries the weight of an injustice — that things should not be this way. In that way, suffering itself expresses some form of hope. The person who is suffering recognizes that the ways things are is contrary to the way things should be.

“In suffering there is a built-in hope,” Deacon Stackhouse said. “They see the possibility of things being different and better than the way they are now. It’s when they no longer see that things can be better is when they despair.”

It is that point of despair — when hope is gone — that people turn to suicide.

While we can’t fix every problem in a person’s life, we can show them support and compassion. By being open and listening, friends and family can help a teen who is struggling from total despair.

“The primary tool that patients used to cope with suffering is a strong support system, and I think that would be true for teens, too,” Deacon Stackhouse said. “If they have a strong support system, they can endure their suffering. You can’t spare them suffering, but help them. If they have a strong support system, they can endure their suffering and find their way through it.”

Talking seems like a simple act, but it can make a big difference. Just by listening, you can demonstrate to someone else that they have value and that you care about them.

Mrs. Coy said it is important for people, especially parents, to create an environment of dialogue so that if a crisis arises, teens already will feel comfortable coming forward and sharing how they feel.

“It’s OK for parents to say, ‘I don’t know how to have this conversation with you, but I feel like I should,’” she said.

The need for community

Each teen is different, and they react to situations and stressors differently; that’s why it is important to ask them how they feel and what they think about what they are going through.

Notre Dame High School guidance counselor Rocco Mansueto engages with students in a classroom setting. Mr. Mansueto believes in an open-door policy for students as part of his counseling.

“We’ve got to talk to our kids a lot.” Mrs. Coy said. “Sometimes I think we get scared of talking about the tough subjects. And we need to do that and do it often, so that doesn’t get to a place where they just condition themselves not to talk about it. I mean, some teens get to high school and they’re pushing their parents farther and farther away, and they want that space, and parents want to be respectful of that, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to remember that we’re chartered to raise these kids to be saints.”

For parents, it also is good to monitor their teen’s use and time on social media. It is an integral part of teenage social structure these days, but parents have a right to know who their teens are talking to and to limit time spent online.

“The resolution is not, I don’t think, saying that technology is evil or social media is evil,” Father Hendershott said. “There are a lot of risks, certainly, and they should be made aware of.

“But the solution, I think, is supernatural hope. The solution is the theological virtue of hope. The answer is not saying, this is bad, this is bad. No, the answer is you are loved, unconditionally, by God the Father. You are made in his image. By baptism you are restored to that likeness. He delights in you. He delights in all these students.”

While limiting time spent online and monitoring for bullying are good, instilling teens with hope and love will go much further in helping them grow into healthy, confident adults.

Just starting a conversation, or establishing the space for teens to feel comfortable talking about their problems, is often the biggest hurdle. Mrs. Coy said KCHS works to create an environment of open communication. Being a Catholic school helps with that.

“At our school, since we talk about faith so much, talking about our feelings or our emotions tends to be a little bit easier because we already do that as a faith community. We talk about doubt. We talk about sin. We talk about our struggles and our journeys,” she said.

KCHS also has the Student Assistance Program (SAP). A licensed clinical social worker is on campus four days a week providing free, confidential counseling during the school day.

Mr. Mansueto said the NDHS community also works to connect to every student and make them feel welcome to approach a counselor or teacher with their problems. He said he tries to get to know each student and has an open-door policy.

“If you have an open-door policy, if you are working hard to connect with the kids, if you are visible, if you are somebody who they connect with, I don’t think it’s hard,” he said. He added that students often will come in on their own and that it’s always a good sign when students are actively choosing to come in and ask for help.

Mr. Mansueto also works to make students aware of the warning signs of suicide so that they can potentially spot and reach out to peers who need help. In September, as part of Suicide Awareness Month, NDHS rang a bell over the intercom every 12-13 minutes to demonstrate the rate of suicide: one life every 12-and-a-half minutes.

“We try to find subtle ways of creating awareness within our students, but the most important thing, too, is once you have that awareness and what those warning signs are, what are the action steps needed,” he said.

He added that listening to someone and letting them share what they’re feeling and experiencing is crucial.

“What they feel might not make sense to you — you may want to say things like, ‘It’s not that bad. You’re overreacting.’ But it’s important to validate others’ experiences. What may not seem like a big deal to you can be destroying another,” Mr. Mansueto pointed out.

“Minimizing somebody’s experience or thought process, devaluing it, shaming them, judging them, minimizing them, is probably the worst thing that we could do,” he said.

Mrs. Coy agreed.

“The biggest thing is not to judge and understand that if they could feel better, they would,” she said.

“Sometimes people will say, ‘Well, just quit thinking about what makes you unhappy and snap out of it.’ Kind of that ‘buck up and pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ mentality. … Rather, be really empathic and just be there for them. Offering, ‘Do you want to go for a walk? Who do you want to talk to? Can you make some arrangements to try to seek somebody out? I’ll go with you, or I’ll find somebody.’”

Defending life

Those who are suffering need the comfort that they are not alone. They also need to be reassured that they are loved and have worth. You love them. God loves them. They are part of something greater.

Suicide is a social act. It hurts more people than the victim. It hurts those left behind who often wonder, “Why did she do that?” “Why wasn’t I enough?” and “What could I have done to stop it?”

Processing the death of a loved one also requires attention and compassion. Those grieving need the space to ask those tough questions that may not have answers.

Mrs. Coy recalled a time when a KCHS student died. The faculty and staff all supported one another and made sure they were available to the students who needed extra support during that time.

“I think that’s why we all work here, and that’s why people send their kids here,” she said. “Community is really our important piece. We’re going to be a community; we’re going to celebrate our good times together, and we’ll be there in the hard times, too. We have a network of counselors that we can reach out to if we need extra counselors, and we can provide those to the kids.”

Another concern friends and family have when a loved one dies by suicide is if that person is in hell.

In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope St. John Paul II affirmed the Church teaching that suicide, like any other taking of a life, is a gravely immoral act:

“Even though a certain psychological, cultural, and social conditioning may induce a person to carry out an action which so radically contradicts the innate inclination to life, thus lessening or removing subjective responsibility, suicide, when viewed objectively, is a gravely immoral act. In fact, it involves the rejection of love of self and the renunciation of the obligation of justice and charity towards one’s neighbor, towards the communities to which one belongs, and towards society as a whole.”

While suicide is a grave act that rejects life, the Church teaches that we cannot know if someone is in hell or not.

“It’s not up to us to make that judgment on where a person goes, whether they kill themselves or not,” Deacon Stackhouse said. “The Church just says it’s not up to us to judge. It’s up to us to pray for those who take their own lives.”

As Christians, we are obligated to defend life. We must see the dignity and worth in ourselves and in others, and to help others recognize their own dignity and worth.

Pope St. John Paul II said, “Everyone who stops beside the suffering of another person, whatever form it may take, is a Good Samaritan.”

This task can be challenging, especially regarding teens. They don’t always know how to ask for help. The conversations are not always easy. But they could save a life.

It may be helpful for teens to keep emergency numbers saved in their phones. The ability to get immediate help during a crisis can make a difference. These can be the numbers of adults they trust, the local non-emergency police number, or a crisis hotline.

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255;
  • TN Crisis Line: 855-274-7471;
  • Crisis Text Line: 741741.

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