Ministers need the right tools to address suicide

Msgr. David LeSieur, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers, prepares to meet a parishioner for counseling.
Msgr. David LeSieur, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers, prepares to meet a parishioner for counseling.

Second in a two-part series on suicide and the Church’s response.

ROGERS — It knows no age limitations or socioeconomic biases. It does not discriminate in race or gender. Suicide speaks all languages. So knowing the words to address and prevent this issue can be complicated.

As parishes, youth ministers and parents are confronted with this complex topic, the first bar­rier is just learning to talk about it.

“We have created a cultural environment that in conversation if someone asks you if you are fine, we feel we must say we are fine,” said Dawn Spragg, licensed professional counselor and director of therapeutic services with the Teen Action and Support Center in Rogers. “We need to have the courage to say we are not fine and help young people have the courage as well.”

Be bold

Spragg, who worked as a youth minister for 18 years, only works with teens. She does many assessments for teens at risk of suicide and said adults and peer ministers need to understand one important fact about dealing with young adults.

“You cannot blow it off if a teen tells you about something that is bothering them,” she said. “You have to validate the depth of their hurt, otherwise they begin to feel that people don’t understand. Sometimes they can get stuck there.”

Liz Tingquist, director of youth and campus ministries for the Diocese of Little Rock, believes there should be a call for boldness in youth ministers and adults.

“We cannot shy away from this discussion. We have to be bold in speaking about it, be bold in contacting parents, be bold in being Christ to other people and be bold in being proactive on this topic,” Tingquist said. “We want to help kids experience what the love of God is by being Jesus in their lives.”

Despite the stigma still surrounding the conversation of suicide, educators, counselors and youth ministers see it as the one-eyed monster it is. But mental health issues, bullying, social media and addictions all have to be a part of the conversation when discussing this issue.

But how?

It takes a village

When a tragedy occurs, the family contacts their parish almost immediately. But the reality is that a young adult may only spend two hours of their week at church activities while the majority of their hours are spent at school.

Beyond the consoling of the family, prayer vigils and funeral arrangements, pastors are often charged with the additional task of responding not just to the family, but also to the parish at large.

In February, four different suicides plagued three parishes in northwest Arkansas. Each parish responded to the tragedies in their own way.

Following the suicides of two young girls, ages 12 and 14, Father John Connell, pastor at St. Raphael Church in Springdale, addressed the young people about the Church’s teaching on suicide and challenged them to love and respect one another even in their differences.

But the parish priests took it a step further and reached out to the community.

“We had a meeting with the superintendent of Springdale schools, principals, a few middle school administrative personnel, resource officers and counselors, plus my formation staff to begin the dialogue of how we can work together in dealing with a multitude of issues that our young people are dealing with, including suicide, the dangers of social media and gang violence,” Father Connell said. “We shared our concerns about the best way to reach the parents of our children so as to be aware of their children’s struggles and we made a promise to keep communications open and to share resources.”

Father Connell, pastor of the largest Catholic church in the state, said he also met with his formation team separately to begin looking at how to reach the 1,800 children enrolled in religious educations classes, parents and organizations about many character issues in fall programs.

Time to Listen

Father Jason Tyler, who has been pastor at St. Joseph Church in Fayetteville since December, believes listening and being present to teens and young adults is important.

“Perhaps a good question for any parent to ask,” added Fr. Tyler is, “‘How do my children know I care about them and want what is best for them?’ Ask that question from the children’s point of view so that it’s not simply ‘How do I show my love for them?’ but rather ‘How do they know?’” he emphasized.

Another impediment to reaching teens at risk can often be the church itself.

“Often I hear young adults say they are afraid to mention how they are feeling at church because they feel they should be perfect,” Spragg said.

Part of the fear in addressing the issue, said Judene Kuszak, is that if suicide is talked about, it becomes real.

“Some parents are not comfortable talking about this,” said Kuszak, director of religious education at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers. “There is still a stigma attached and some feel it could happen to their children if they talk about it.”

Ultimately, parents listening to their children, asking questions and recognizing when their child is at risk is the first line of defense for battling the issues young adults face.

“All of us have to reach out and be aware of what is going on around us,” Father Connell said, “in our families, classrooms and circle of friends. The best way to help families going forward is to be knowledgeable, be aware of what is going on and to not be afraid to inform those in authority when you hear or see something. Maybe our actions and words going forward can prevent another suicide or act of violence.”

Alesia Schaefer

Alesia Schaefer has been a Arkansas Catholic reporter and columnist from Northwest Arkansas for more than 10 years. A member of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers, she works as admissions director and cross country coach at Ozark Catholic Academy in Tontitown.

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