No one enjoys talking about the suicide epidemic facing young people in the United States today, but that’s exactly what Catholic psychotherapist Roy Petitfils did during a daylong workshop with a group of clergy, youth leaders and parish and archdiocesan staffers last month in Anchorage.
Petitfils began with a litany of social and psychological ills threatening today’s teens, one of the consequences being that suicide is now the second leading cause of death for this population.
“This is why days like this are so important, because we have to talk about it,” he told those gathered at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral on Jan. 17.
Petitfils was in Alaska as part of a week of public presentations on a wide range of topics for parents, teens and young adults. He focused on helping adults understand, reach and influence teens, and helping teens to understand themselves.
The talk to church leaders, however, dealt with the reality that many young people are suffering and see no way out. Parents, fellow adults, teachers and parish leaders have a critical role in helping youth find their way, he said.
“Young people are experience-rich but language-poor,” he said. “One of the primary roles we have is to help them articulate their experiences and their faith.”
While no single cause puts teens at risk of attempting suicide, there are numerous risk factors.
Petitfils, who practices psychotherapy in Louisiana and has studied ministry and spirituality at the graduate level at the University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, has gleaned his knowledge from years of interacting with teens and ongoing studies of the latest trends.
In a world increasingly saturated with iPhones and electronic devices, Petitfils said this has created a reality that “changes how we address youth today.”
Teens are immersed in a world that parents may not be familiar with — seeking approval, validation and acceptance through social media networks. While Petitfils did not categorically condemn electronic devises, he did point to serious challenges they pose when it comes to interacting with and understanding young people.
Families, partly because of their electronic device and entertainments, do not interact with each other like they once did. “They are together, but alone,” he said, while projecting a slide show image of a modern family gathered in the living room, all staring at their phones.
“This is not the window to the soul,” he said holding up his iPhone and emphasizing that families need to spend time “looking each other in the eyes.”
Bullying and unhealthy relationships have taken on new forms with the saturation of iPhones. Bullying and unhealthy relationships in which a teen possesses the passwords and accounts of their boyfriend or girlfriend are risk factors, he said, adding that more than half of teens with a mobile device have sent a sexually explicit message.
“A lot of girls are pressured to do this,” he said.
But it’s not just electronic devices that create barriers to meaningful human relationships. The breakdown of family ties also contributes to the mental health struggles of teens.
Now 34 percent of young people are raised by single parents, he said, adding that 2.4 million grandparents now raise 4.5 million children. Additionally, blended families are on the rise, which can be a blessing in some situations, but for others it is a risk factor for suicide.
“For a lot of young people they didn’t get a vote in the blending,” he said, and it can be hard. Other risk factors are those who are adopted, foster kids, youth with working moms, and those living in same-sex-union homes.
No one element causes teens to spiral into despair and suicidal thoughts, but they can, and sometimes do, create environments which can lead to depression.
Petitfils noted other factors that put stress on young people. These include the hostile political climate of today and the non-stop media coverage of war, terror and violence, which is readily available at all hours of the day to anyone with a mobile device.
Similarly, realities surrounding jobs and an uncertain future can create anxiety, which can lead to depression, Petitfils observed. Increasingly, teens “have no clear path in the world of work.” They have countless paths before them but are more exposed to unrealistic ideas of success.
Ultimately, he said, teens need four basic pillars to be mentally healthy. They need to be “safe, seen, soothed and secure.”
Petitfils broke this down.
Youth need to feel safe spiritually, physically and socially. They need to know that they are seen and acknowledged by their parents, family and friends.
“A lot of young people today feel invisible and that’s what happens when they get to the point where they want to take their life,” he said.
Teens also need to be “soothed,” meaning they need avenues for dealing with their volatile emotions — both good and bad.
While Petitfils presentation was sobering, he noted that adult leaders can have a positive impact.
“Many kids who are contemplating suicide want to talk about it but they may not know how to initiate it,” he said. One of the tasks of trusted adults is to help them express themselves through language. That means “listening and reflecting back what you heard,” he said. Many people, he said, feel like no one listens or understands them.
Other positive ways of boosting teens’ mental health is to make sure they get exercise, sunlight (or vitamin D), and have downtime to play and be creative — without using electronic devices.
In some cases, adults will need to refer youth to clinical counseling and perhaps medication, he said. When this occurs, it’s important that adults don’t simply pass the youth along, but stay in touch with them, follow up, Petitfils emphasized.
No approach to helping teens is sufficient, however, without addressing their spiritual life, he said. Youth should be encouraged to spend time in prayer and eucharistic adoration, where they can simply sit before their loving God.
As Catholics, he said, youth can greatly benefit from weekly Mass, participating in the ancient and holy liturgies of the church, which are a constant in a world of endless change.
“How we deal with stress without a contemplative prayer life, I don’t know,” Petitfils said. “We need prayer — it gives us hope.”