Q&A: Signs to look for, ways to help youth with mental health or substance issues

Counselor offers tips to parents for keeping communication open, treatment effective, kids safe

Last year, spurred by suicide clusters among middle- and high-school age youths, the Colorado Attorney General’s Office released the results of a study that notes substance use and abuse, as well as depression and anxiety, were commonly discussed risk factors contributing to suicidal behavior in youth. A 2018 report by the Colorado Health Institute shows suicide is a leading cause of death in the state for those ages 10-24. Mark Sanders, a licensed professional counselor and certified addiction counselor with St. Raphael Counseling, recently spoke to the Denver Catholic about mental health and addiction issues in youth and what parents can watch for and do to help their young people. His comments have been edited for space.

Denver Catholic: You’ve explored improving mental health and substance use treatment, share one tip toward that.

Mark Sanders: No matter how old a person is, but especially with adolescents, it’s important to include the family in their treatment. Say a parent catches their kid drinking or smoking pot, often their reaction is, Put them in treatment — then they plop them back in the family. A lot of times that doesn’t work very well. There’s a relationship between the youth and their parents, siblings and friends. To do effective treatment, you must change the patterns of how they interact with those others. That is more effective than just addressing, What can you do when you have a craving? That’s important, but for long-term success there has to be a family component. It’s not as simple as, All you need to do is stop using pot. There could be an underlying mental health issue that is leading the adolescent to those behaviors.

 

DC: Address the importance of including a spiritual dimension in treatment.

MS: Many secular mental health treatment centers are hesitant to talk about spirituality, but if you investigate the suicide rates or anxiety rates among adolescents it is obvious that in our culture our kids are looking for something more. They are trying to fill something. On some level they understand that our wacky consumerist culture isn’t enough to fulfill them. I see that very much in addictions — I see that as a spiritual issue. And it’s not just alcohol and pot use, it’s also technology (social media) and pornography issues. Having that option to ask: Is there a spiritual piece to this? Are you hunting for something you’re not finding? That can be helpful to guide people to make better choices. At the very least our culture is disinterested in religion, and at the worst, it is opposed to it. In the context of all this, an adolescent is trying to figure out who they are. No wonder they have issues with addiction and gender confusion.

 

DC: Colorado has a high suicide rate, particularly among young people. What are some warning signs parents should be aware of that their teen may have depression or addiction issues?

MS: One caveat is that with teens 14, 15 and 16, parents will see a lot of changes in their child due to puberty. That may not necessarily be a bad thing. Some things you can look at: Your child has always got As and Bs and done well in school, now they’re getting Cs and Ds and hate school. They are skipping school and not turning in assignments. They have had three best friends their whole life, now they are not hanging out with those people but with others you don’t know. You may see withdrawal from the family. Some of that will be normal, but for some it indicates a mental health issue. You know your kid better than anyone and you’ll understand when something is radically different.

 

DC: What can parents do if they discover their child is depressed or addicted?

MS: Try to improve communication and be open to learning opportunities. When comedian Robin Williams committed suicide people wondered, How could someone so funny commit suicide? If parents can pay attention to those moments and say, Let’s talk about that, why do you think? Do you ever think about that? Do you have friends who feel like that?

Also, don’t give up on your kid. Even if a kid isn’t interested in having dinner with you or interacting with you, you have to keep trying. Keep going in to say goodnight and give them a kiss. You have to keep that connection. Be available as much as possible, that’s important.

If you get to a point where you’re not sure what to do, there are a lot of treatment programs, there’s St. Raphael Counseling, there are community mental health centers. If safety is a concern, go to an emergency room. Don’t be afraid to do that. I had a client whose son was on and off suicidal. The mother had taken him to the hospital and he got angry. The mother said, I would rather have an angry son than a dead son. You’re the parent; you have the responsibility to do that.

 

DC: What’s the good news people should know about mental health issues and addiction?

MS: Two big things: For one, lots of people recover every single day and we never know about it. With alcohol issues, many people recover and change without any program. It’s not a hopeless diagnosis.

And two, the earlier you catch these things the better it’s going to be to address them. If you have a bad habit at age 49 it will be a whole lot harder to stop than if it was caught at age 17.  Research shows that if you are younger than age 14 and start using a substance you have a 400 percent greater chance at having a lifelong problem than someone who starts later. Basically, 99 percent of people with addiction issues start before 21.

(Adolescence and young adulthood) are critical times in a person’s life. You don’t think at 15 that your choices will affect you at 40, but they will. Young people and their parents need to be aware of that.

 

DC: Is there anything else you would like to add?

MS: The need for connection for young people is very important. Research tells us kids who are attached to activities after school — clubs, sports, faith-based youth groups — fare much better and stand a far better chance of avoiding substance abuse, pre-marital sex, trouble with the law or of dropping out of school, than those who aren’t attached to after-school activities. A youth doesn’t have to do 26 activities, just being involved with something that increases self-esteem and connection with other people has a really positive impact. There’s a principle that you are the amalgamation of the five people you surround yourself with. If they go to church, believe in God, make good choices, you’ll pick up on those things just by being around them. If you surround yourself with people who smoke pot and skip school, that’s what will affect you. One’s activities and social network are huge.

RESOURCES

Colorado Crisis & Support Line: 1-844-493-8255               Safe2Tell: 1-877-542-7233

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”