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: A holy Church begins with you

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A holy Church begins with you

Bishop Rodriguez challenges Catholics to realize their call to holiness

Roxanne King

Even as the Catholic Church deals with the disgrace and shame of the clergy sexual abuse scandal and moves forward with repentance and renewal, it is challenging as faithful not to be disheartened and discouraged.

The answer to this situation is to follow the Scriptural mandate to holiness all Catholic Christians have been given, Denver auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodriguez told attendees of the May 17-19 Aspen Catholic conference titled, “The Encounter: New Life in Jesus Christ.”

As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, ‘be holy, because I [am] holy,’” the bishop said, quoting I Peter 1:15-16.

“Holiness,” the bishop asserted, “…is the only thing that will get our Church through this crisis. It’s a transformation that we all need.”

The annual conference, an initiative of Father John Hilton, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Aspen where the event was held, drew people from the Archdiocese of Denver and from outside the state to strengthen their relationship with Jesus Christ, deepen their understanding of the Catholic faith, renew their spirit in the beauty of Colorado’s high country, and return home equipped to better share their faith.

Despite the current crisis, which is evidence the Church is comprised of sinners, every Sunday when professing the Creed, Catholics say, “I believe in the holy Catholic Church.”

“We say publicly that we believe the Catholic Church is holy. Do we mean it?” Bishop Rodriguez mused before affirming: “The Catholic Church, like it or not, will always be holy for three reasons.”

First: “Jesus Christ is the author of holiness and he is the head of the Church. … Jesus is the Church with all of us. The holiness of Jesus fills the whole Church.”

Second: “The Church is the only institution in the world that possesses all the means of sanctification left by Christ for his Church to sanctify its members and to make them holy.”

Third: “There are many, many holy people in the Church, both in heaven and here on earth.”

Holiness…is the only thing that will get our Church through this crisis. It’s a transformation that we all need.”

Slain STEM School shooting hero Kendrick Castillo is an example of a holy, young Catholic, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“He gave his life for his classmates. If this is not holiness, what is?” the bishop said about the 18-year-old who was killed May 7 when he tackled a teen shooter.

Servant of God Julia Greeley, a former slave known for her acts of charity and generosity from her own meager means to others in early Denver, and St. John Paul II, who in emphasizing the universal call to holiness of all Christians beatified and canonized more people than the combined total of his predecessors in the five centuries before him, were among others Bishop Rodriguez mentioned who comprise “the great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) of those believers who have preceded us into God’s kingdom. Additionally, there are countless “next-door saints,” he said, using a term coined by Pope Francis to describe those unknowns of heroic virtue among our family, friends and neighbors.

Rodriguez said, because the Scriptures say, Christ so loved the Church and gave himself up for her to make her holy (Eph 5:25-26).

“‘The Church is holy because it proceeds from God, who is holy,’” the bishop said, quoting Pope Francis’ Oct. 2, 2013, general audience address. “’It is not holy by our merits; we are not able to make her holy. It is God, the Holy Spirit, who in his love makes the Church holy.’

“The Catholic Church is and will be holy, even though some of her members still need repentance and conversion,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “Great sinners don’t make our Church unholy, but make the Church a factory of saints, where sinners are made holy by the power of God.”

Holiness is our deepest longing because we were created to be holy, the bishop said. But the only way to realize that call is to submit to God and allow him to transform us, he said, using the scriptural analogy of clay taking shape in a potter’s hands.

“We cannot deserve, produce, gain, create, or make holiness,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “Only God in his gratuitousness and infinite love can make a saint of you. … Holiness is pure gift, is grace.”

Catholics believe holiness is real — that grace received through the sacraments, prayer and reading Scripture, infuses and transforms the believer into a new creation, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“Salvation is real,” the bishop said. “Pope Francis [warns] about a heresy that has been in the Church since apostolic times under different appearances — Gnosticism. It is a doctrine of salvation by knowledge, reducing Christianity to doctrine [or] text, to something intellectual.”

In doing so, Gnosticism loses the flesh of the incarnation and reduces Jesus to his message, Bishop Rodriguez said. Likewise, Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann, a major figure of 20th-century biblical studies and liberal Christianity, promoted “demythologizing” the Gospel to attract modern adherents.

As a result, “people lost faith that these things really happened,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “[Bultmann] did tremendous damage to Christianity.”

The Apostles, however, insisted on the truth of Jesus’ incarnational reality, the bishop said, noting the First Letter of St. John proclaims: What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands, concerns the Word of life — for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you.

Great sinners don’t make our Church unholy, but make the Church a factory of saints, where sinners are made holy by the power of God.”

“Our Christian faith is not a body of doctrines, not a code of conduct, not an ethical idea, not an elaborated ritual,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “It is not even a community. It is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. It is an event. It is a person. It is an event that happens. In the Gospel everything begins with an encounter with Jesus. Have we encountered Jesus?”

Jesus may be encountered through prayer, Scripture and the sacraments, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“These are three gifts God has given to us to open us to holiness,” he said. “These are the Catholic ways to have a personal encounter with Jesus that is real.”

Regarding prayer: “The best way to start is to become aware of Jesus presence. … prayer [then] becomes a personal encounter, otherwise it’s an intellectual exercise.”

Regarding Scripture: “It’s not about information … it’s about God telling his love for me.”

Regarding sacraments: “The sacramental life is God touching me with his holiness.

“In the Catholic Church we believe that Jesus Christ didn’t want us to only have a recorded memory of him as in the Scriptures, but a living presence among us. He said: ‘I will be with you until the end of time.’”

I dare you to allow God to make a great saint of you.”

Just as Jesus was present with the people of Galilee healing and forgiving them, so he is present with us today through the sacraments, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“That’s why he instituted the sacraments. Each sacrament is a merciful and sweet touch of Jesus in our lives,” the bishop said. “This is what we mean when we say he makes us holy through the sacraments.”

So why isn’t there more holiness in our lives and more saints in the Church?

“God wants to work with our clay … but to make a saint is a question of love,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “Love cannot be imposed, it cannot be mandated.”

Rather, one must cooperate with God’s grace to become the saint God desires.

“Last March, Pope Francis wrote an apostolic exhortation on our call to be holy, Rejoice and Be Glad,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “His thesis is that we have been made for happiness, and true happiness and joy only comes from a holy life.”

Holiness doesn’t mean perfection, performing miracles or that we are not tempted, Bishop Rodriguez said. Rather, it means loving God and one’s neighbor by doing the everyday tasks of life with love.

The answer for times of persecution and crisis in the Church has always been the holiness of the people of God, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“I dare you to allow God to make a great saint of you,” he challenged.

“This is our response to the Church crisis today: holy Catholic men and women,” he asserted. “We will never give up and we will fight against discouragement and loss of hope. Jesus is with us as he promised.”

Featured image by Roxanne King