by Marc and Julie Anderson
MARYSVILLE — Something terrible is happening to our rural youth, but it isn’t obvious until it’s tragically too late.
Teen suicide by rural youths is a quiet crisis that many people don’t know about. According to a study released in May 2015 by the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, suicide rates for rural adolescents and young adults are nearly double compared to those in urban communities.
All teens face a host of pressures, including academic, athletic and social ones. These pressures can sometimes lead to depression, suicide and/or struggles with gender identity or sexual activity. Rural teens don’t always have the same resources available to them as their urban peers, however.
So how can parents, religious education coordinators and teachers in rural areas engage teens in their faith? And how do they recognize signs when a teen might be in trouble and might need some extra help?
Angie Bittner, the archdiocese’s rural youth outreach coordinator, wants to provide teens in rural areas with as many of the same tools and services as their urban counterparts as possible. And, at the minimum, she wants teens in rural areas to realize they’re not alone and that God loves them.
Bittner travels throughout the archdiocese, providing training to parents, religious education teachers and directors, and pastors on a range of topics facing teenagers.
This past fall, Bittner hosted training sessions in Atchison, Ottawa, Olpe, Marysville and Rossville in partnership with Dr. Mike Moffit and Dr. Jacqueline Pfeifer, a husband-wife team of professional psychologists who own a group practice in the Greater Kansas City area. The two are also members of the archdiocese’s group of Catholic counselors.
During one of the training meetings, held Nov. 1, 2015, at the Knights of Columbus hall at St. Gregory Church in Marysville, Moffit and Pfeifer discussed a range of issues, including: the effects of texting and video upon teenagers’ brains; how to introduce lectio divina to young people; the importance of exercise and rest for teenagers; and the value of young people having relationships with older adults such as parents, teachers, coaches and grandparents. The session drew nearly two dozen interested parents, pastors and religious education teachers from the region.
At the start of the discussion, Moffit discussed integrating the four main quadrants of our lives.
“In therapy, oftentimes I’ll sit down with a client and I’ll draw four circles on a piece of paper, and I’ll explain to them that each and every one of us has four different areas. And I’ll call them the biological, psychological, social and spiritual realms,” he said, adding later that it’s important to pay attention to all four areas of our lives, especially the spiritual.
“The body doesn’t exist outside the soul,” he said. “We’re all designed to be happy, but the only way we’re going to be happy is if we’re living a virtuous life.”
One way to grow in holiness, said Moffit, is through use of the sacraments. First, having them baptized in the Catholic faith is the greatest gift parents can give children beyond their birth because it is through baptism that they become members of God’s family.
The sacraments of healing, like reconciliation and the anointing of the sick, are also important. More and more pastors are recognizing the need to anoint those suffering with mental illnesses like major depression and/or addictions, or those contemplating suicide.
“I think it’s a beautiful thing,” said Pfeifer. She and her husband have witnessed firsthand the powerful and positive effects the anointing has had on some of their clients.
So how do we help parents, the primary teachers of the faith, instruct their children and help them become fully integrated, healthy and happy human beings?
One of the ways, said Pfeifer, is to build relationships with the children you’re entrusted with, whether it be your own children or those in a religious education class or other setting. Many teenagers today are forming relationships along a horizontal axis, meaning they turn to their friends for advice rather than their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers or coaches. It’s important to build relationships that create vertical attachments to older role models. That way, when they need help or find themselves in crisis, they will be more likely to turn to those older role models for advice and assistance.
Building those relationships, both Moffit and Pfeifer said, takes time. In their professional practice, they spend time getting to know their clients first by listening to them and finding out more about their interests. That way, they establish both rapport and trust.
The same is true for families, said Pfeifer. Families need to spend time talking together and praying together, as well as sharing other common activities, like regular meals at the dinner table or time set aside for family board games.
Strong marriages and families build strong children, and, in turn, strong societies, said Pfeifer.