Mental health services complement academic, faith formation

St. Raphael Counseling enriches holistic formation offered at Catholic schools

Roxanne King

How Dick or Jane learn, behave or handle their emotions can point to mental disorders, with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and behavior disorders being the most common diagnosed, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

The 2013 study found that 1 in 6 U.S. children aged 2 to 8 years (17.4 percent) had a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder. It also shows that diagnoses of depression and anxiety are more common with increased age, and behavior problems are more common among children aged 6 to 11 years.

Most sobering? In the same report, suicide was the second leading cause of death among adolescents aged 12 to 17.

The encouraging news is that early diagnosis of mental health disorders and appropriate services can make a difference. In Catholic schools of the Denver Archdiocese, a team of six counselors from Catholic Charities’ St. Raphael Counseling work with students and staff in nine elementary/middle schools located in Broomfield, Welby, central and inner-city Denver, Boulder, Aurora and Lakewood.

“Each week our team is providing over 120 direct service hours to kids in Catholic schools,” said Jim Langley, a licensed clinical psychologist who is co-founder and executive director of St. Raphael Counseling. “They serve hundreds of kids a year.”

In addition to providing counseling, the mental health professionals help identify learning disorders. Once a psychologist makes a diagnosis, in partnership with school staff and parents, the counselors tailor an action plan to effectively meet the child’s educational needs.

“They also do consultation with teachers on a variety of topics: classroom management, how to meet the emotional needs of kids in the classroom and how to work with families,” Langley said.

Outreach efforts include hosting parent nights for Catholic schools addressing topics ranging from how to manage screen time at home to how to manage homework and set a good evening routine.

“Another thing we’re involved with is when a threat assessment is deemed necessary,” Langley said. “We help perform the psychological assessment and advise the school on how to respond if a kid is bullying somebody and maybe makes a threat. We assess the severity of the threat and figure out the best way to respond.”

Superintendent of Catholic Schools Elias Moo has worked with the archdiocesan team both in his current position and in his previous roles as a principal and teacher.

“They are a tremendous blessing for the community,” Moo said. “These days we see a lot of mental health-related issues that come up and impact the learning experience of students.

“One of the most important aims of the Catholic schools is to tend to the formation of the whole child: their intellectual faculties, soul, body and emotions—the heart. Having mental health support through St. Raphael where a counselor approaches through an authentic Catholic anthropology and understanding of the human person is great.”

The majority of youths today, 8 out of 10, Langley said, will experience some type of mental health issue, such as bullying, academic struggles, anxiety, low self-esteem or family issues.

“Most kids have experienced some of that in their childhood,” he said. “We often assume kids are resilient and these things don’t affect them that much. That’s not true, they are greatly affected.”

Noting that Colorado’s teen suicide rate continues to increase—it is nearly twice the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—Langley said there is a clear need to be able to provide mental health services for youths.

“Our counselors are really focused on helping kids recognize their God-given dignity,” Langley said. “The worldly way of looking at life … teaches that your worth is something that has to be earned and that the way you can tell you’re valued is by the feedback you get from your peers.

“Our counselors help them understand their sense of worth and their dignity in the Lord and help them to make choices based on that dignity. It’s an awesome message to give kids at such a young age.”

Moo affirmed that foundational Catholic belief.

“We’re not immune to anything but we are an educational community of faith and every child is being reminded constantly that they are loved by God and that they are sons and daughters of God,” he said. “When it comes to topics like depression, how to prevent suicide and terrible acts of violence, youths can lose hope and forget they have someone who loves them. The Catholic schools have a message of hope and love to transmit rooted in our faith and in our Lord.”

Moo and Langley both expressed a desire to see counselors made available at all Catholic schools that want one (there are 36 diocesan schools, according to the Office of Catholic School’s website). Currently, counselors’ salaries are covered jointly between the school and Catholic Charities.

“If you have kids in a Catholic school that doesn’t have a counselor, advocate with the school for getting one,” Langley advised. “Many principals see the value in it.”

“There are no concrete plans, but we are committed to doing what we can,” Moo said.

COMING UP: Radical living and my friend Shelly

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I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.