‘Protecting Our Teens’ – Parents and teens gather to discuss mental health and suicide prevention

By TAMI QUIGLEY Staff writer

“Tonight is a start for everyone here to do what we can in a culture of life for those with mental health concerns,” said Father Allen Hoffa, who led the discussion “Protecting Our Teens,” a discussion about teen mental health and suicide prevention that drew approximately 75 parents and teens to St. Francis of Assisi, Allentown May 30.

“We have to be invested in one another as Christ is invested in us.”

After hearing about or watching “13 Reasons Why” on Netflix, some of the youth ministry kids at St. Francis of Assisi had questions about teen suicide and Catholic beliefs.

Based on the 2007 young adult novel by the same name, “13 Reasons Why” is the story of a troubled 17-year-old who took her own life, leaving 13 cassette tapes explaining her reasons.

Father Hoffa, assistant pastor of Holy Guardian Angels Church, Reading, is former chaplain at Allentown Central Catholic High School (ACCHS) and Lehigh University, Bethlehem.

Joining Father Hoffa on the panel was Randy Rice, director of guidance at ACCHS, who previously served in the Whitehall School District. Two representatives of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Allentown also attended.

Three mental health specialists from the parish were on hand in case a student or parent needed to speak to someone at that moment.

Those attending included Msgr. Victor Finelli, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi, and Alexa Doncsecz, assistant coordinator of the diocesan Office of Youth, Young Adult and Family Ministry (OYYAFM).

Father Hoffa

Father Hoffa said parents and young people all have “social capital,” earned when they are welcomed into a group of friends.

“In this day and age, especially because of social media, we can’t afford to lose any social capital,” he said.

For example, if a parent has a child suffering from depression and sees another parent at a soccer game, would he or she bring it up to the other parent? No, because it might get them excluded from the group due to the stigma still attached to mental health issues, Father Hoffa said.

Father Hoffa said young people struggle with sex, drugs, alcohol and variations of all three, as well as self-destructive behavior such as cutting.

“Kids don’t want to find themselves on the outs with friends, and that causes pressure.”

“As parents and adults we have a responsibility,” he said.

Father Hoffa cited the example of parents who knew other parents were supplying alcohol to students at a party, but were being “responsible” by taking away their car keys. “The parents took the keys away, and a student at a graduation party walked into the middle of the road and was hit by a tractor-trailer.”

“The pro-life mentality is do the right thing for the right reasons,” Father Hoffa said.

“At the end of life we don’t answer to friends, but to the Almighty. I want to say to him for every child I met, I did my best to help.”

Father Hoffa advocated the idea of living our lives according to the question “What would Jesus do?”

Father Hoffa also said we’ve lost so much in society with the lessening of “face-to-face” communication due to email and texting.

He said when there is cause for concern with a child in school regarding mental health issues, some parents are open to discussing the problem. Others have the attitude “My child is perfect, there’s nothing wrong with my child.”

“My God is not a God of shame,” Father Hoffa said, noting parents shouldn’t blame themselves for “missing something” that would indicate there was a problem.

“It takes everyone to raise a child,” he said, referring to parents, extended family, school, parish and parish priest.

“If I find a child has a mental health problem, there are some situations I can handle – I’ve had some training in psychology and pastoral counseling. But I know my limits,” Father Hoffa said, noting he’d then get help from Rice or another mental health professional as needed.

Father Hoffa said the brain is an organ like any other. People with heart disease see a cardiologist, people with cancer see an oncologist, and people with mental health issues should see a mental health professional. “There shouldn’t be a stigma,” he said.

“Friends can help friends to a certain point, but then you need professional help.”

Problems arise when something resides in a child, continues to grow and is not addressed.

When children make mistakes, they shouldn’t let the consequences stop them from talking about it, he added.

Father Hoffa said the biggest thing in “13 Reasons Why” is “there wasn’t a set-up around this poor young girl to help her.” He said it’s fine if adults watch the show and discuss it, but cautioned against young people watching it because “there’s too much of a threat of copycat. It can be harmful.”

“Don’t let ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf” become your reality,” he said. “We can never let up on the concerns our children bring us in even the smallest way.”

“No one here is committing to be a psychologist or psychiatrist, but you are a person with a heart,” Father Hoffa said, emphasizing the importance of doing what you can to help no matter the repercussions on social media.

“Let’s make sure we build up our kids every day in life – and not lose them to death.”

In response to questions from participants, Father Hoffa recommended those who can’t afford to see a mental health professional should contact Catholic Charities, which has well-qualified professionals on staff. “Another battle is with the insurance companies, to have them cover mental health like any other medical issue.”

Father Hoffa said if you see changes in a child that cause concern, ask them how they are doing and, depending on their response, call their parents. “You are that child’s life raft. Often asking ‘how are you’ opens up a well of things. Then follow through and get them the help that is needed.”

For information on the church’s teaching on suicide and mental health, Father Hoffa suggested reading “Depression and Suicide – A Catholic Perspective” by Aaron Kheriaty, published in the National Catholic Register Oct. 11, 2014; the article can be found at by clicking here.

The article states, in part, “The church teaches that suicide is a sin against love of God, love of oneself and love of neighbor. On the other hand, the church also recognizes that an individual’s moral culpability for the act of suicide can be diminished by mental illness, as described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: ‘Grave psychological disturbances, anguish or grave fear of hardship, suffering or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.’

“The catechism goes on to say: “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”

Randy Rice

“We have to get the message out there to kids that there are people and programs in our schools designed to help them with whatever they are struggling with,” said Rice.

Rice said students today face many pressures, such as worrying about college acceptances, and excelling on the court, on the field or in the band.

“The whole social media piece makes the challenge bigger – it’s had a very adverse effect. It’s overwhelming,” Rice said, noting he’s seen this especially in the past two years. For example, a student may think someone is their friend, but go home that night and see a post on someone’s social media and realize that person isn’t their friend.

“Kids in today’s world have a lot of pressure. There are programs designed to help them,” Rice said, highlighting the Student Assistance Program at ACCHS. A teacher or student can refer a student to the program, and it can be done anonymously. “It gives us a heads up if a student has a problem, such as if a student is cutting themselves.

“We need to work collaboratively – teachers, administrators, family and campus ministry.

“If we find a student has suicidal thoughts we immediately call them down and try to get them to talk.” The parents are called to come in and discuss what actions to take, and the parents must be there to take the child home.

“Once the parent comes in, the student can’t come back until a letter from a medical professional says it’s OK.”

ACCHS also has a Suicide Awareness Policy to inform the staff and to go into classrooms and offer presentations.

The event welcomed all teens and parents in the Diocese of Allentown, whether in a youth ministry program or not.

Camille Stockdale, director of religious education, and the other youth leaders at St. Francis, along with Msgr. Victor Finelli, pastor, decided to hold the special Q&A night for the kids – and invited other youth in the diocese to join them.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24. Studies show that publicized suicides may also trigger a ripple effect of additional suicides within communities.

The creators of the Netflix series insisted in a follow-up video that “13 Reasons Why” was meant to be helpful – to bring up important conversations about serious topics like suicide, bullying and assault, and to get viewers talking about solutions to suicidal thoughts.

However, suicide prevention groups and youth leaders have raised concerns because the show is particularly popular among a teenage audience, and teenagers are a vulnerable population. Some have pointed out that the series romanticizes suicide and does nothing to show the role mental illness plays when a person takes his or her own life.

Life Teen, an international youth ministry program, released a video and a written message to young people, warning them of possible triggers in the show and the inadequate ways it addresses suicide and mental health.

To see the blog, click here and watch the video on YouTube.

If you think you are or a friend is struggling with suicidal thoughts, ask for help from someone you can trust and/or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (available 24/7).