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

Roxanne King

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: AM[D]G           

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Last November 11, on the centenary of its relocation to a 93-acre campus in suburban Washington, D.C., Georgetown Preparatory School announced a $60 million capital campaign. In his message for the opening of the campaign, Georgetown Prep’s president, Father James Van Dyke, SJ, said that, in addition to improving the school’s residential facilities, the campaign intended to boost Prep’s endowment to meet increasing demands for financial aid. Like other high-end Catholic secondary schools, Georgetown Prep is rightly concerned about pricing itself out of reach of most families. So Prep’s determination to make itself more affordable through an enhanced endowment capable of funding scholarships and other forms of financial aid for less-than-wealthy students is all to the good.

What I find disturbing about the campaign is its “branding” slogan. I first became aware of it when, driving past the campus a few months ago, I noticed a billboard at the corner of Rockville Pike and Tuckerman Lane. In large, bold letters, it proclaimed, “FOR THE GREATER GLORY.” And I wondered, “…of what?” Then one day, when traffic allowed, I slowed down and espied the much smaller inscription in the bottom right corner: “Georgetown Prep’s Legacy Campaign.”

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam [For the greater glory of God], often reduced to the abbreviation, AMDG, was the Latin motto of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. Georgetown Prep is a Jesuit school. So what happened to the D-word? What happened to God? Why did AMDG become AM[D]G while being translated into fundraising English?

I made inquiries of Jesuit friends and learned that amputating the “D” in AMDG is not unique to Georgetown Prep; it’s a tactic used by other Jesuit institutions engaged in the heavy-lift fundraising of capital campaigns. That was not good news. Nor was I reassured by pondering Father Van Dyke’s campaign-opening message, in which the words “Jesus Christ” did not appear. Neither did Pope Francis’s call for the Church’s institutions to prepare missionary disciples as part of what the Pope has called a “Church permanently in mission.” And neither did the word “God,” save for a closing “Thanks, and God bless.”

Father Van Dyke did mention that “Ignatian values” were one of the “pillars” of Georgetown prep’s “reputation for excellence.” And he did conclude his message with a call for “men who will make a difference in a world that badly needs people who care, people who, in the words Ignatius wrote his best friend Francis Xavier as he sent him on the Society of Jesus’s first mission, will ‘set the world on fire’.” Fine. But ignition to what end?

Ignatius sent Francis Xavier to the Indies and on to East Asia to set the world on fire with love of the Lord Jesus Christ, by evangelizing those then known as “heathens” with the warmth of the Gospel and the enlivening flame of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith. St. Ignatius was a New Evangelization man half a millennium before Pope St. John Paul II used the term. St. Ignatius’s chief “Ignatian value” was gloria Dei, the glory of God.

Forming young men into spiritually incandescent, intellectually formidable and courageous Christian disciples, radically conformed to Jesus Christ and just as deeply committed to converting the world, was the originating purpose of Jesuit schools in post-Reformation Europe. Those schools were not content to prepare generic “men for others;” they were passionately devoted to forming Catholic men for converting others, the “others” being those who had abandoned Catholicism for Protestantism or secular rationalism. That was why the Jesuits were hated and feared by powerful leaders with other agendas, be they Protestant monarchs like Elizabeth I of England or rationalist politicians like Portugal’s 18th-century prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal.

Religious education in U.S. Catholic elementary schools has been improved in recent decades. And we live in something of a golden age of Catholic campus ministry at American colleges and universities. It’s Catholic secondary education in the U.S. that remains to be thoroughly reformed so that Catholic high schools prepare future leaders of the New Evangelization: leaders who will bring others to Christ, heal a deeply wounded culture, and become agents of a sane politics. Jesuit secondary education, beginning with prominent and academically excellent schools like Georgetown Prep, could and should be at the forefront of that reform.

Jesuit secondary education is unlikely to provide that leadership, however, if its self-presentation brackets God and announces itself as committed to “the greater glory” of…whatever.