How Catholic high schools can address the teen mental health crisis
Last year, while attending the funeral of a former high school classmate who died by suicide, Braden Brignac and Leo John Arnett realized something had to change. Mr. Brignac, once the co-captain of the school’s varsity soccer team, and Mr. Arnett, previously a student council secretary and now a Georgetown University alumnus, are both 2018 graduates of Jesuit High School of New Orleans.
Their classmate’s death—and the mourning that followed—spurred the creation of Vie Bénie, a nonprofit focused on mental health in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Deriving its name from the French for “blessed life,” the organization works to provide much-needed psychological resources for local high school students, who are in a demographic group facing significant mental health challenges. On a mission to eliminate stigma surrounding mental health counseling, Mr. Arnett and Mr. Brignac began by reaching out to five Catholic high schools and to the archdiocese, which worked with the students.
Life-threatening mental health concerns affecting U.S. teens have reached a crisis point, complicated by a laundry list of social issues.
Life-threatening mental health concerns affecting U.S. teens have reached a crisis point, complicated by a laundry list of social issues—racism, gun violence, opioid addiction, climate change—and exacerbated by pandemic-era isolation. In December 2021, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, sounded the alarm about a startling decline in adolescent psychological health and described the nation’s moral obligation to treat and prevent mental illness.
“The challenges today’s generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate,” Dr. Murthy wrote in his 53-page advisory. “And the effect these challenges have had on their mental health is devastating.”
How can Catholic high schools and universities best address a growing number of adolescents at war with their own minds? Roy Petitfils is a youth therapist at the Pax Renewal Center, a faith-based counseling service located two hours west of New Orleans. A former campus minister and graduate of the Saint Joseph Seminary College, in Saint Benedict, La., Mr. Petitfils said that he saw higher levels of anxiety and depression among Catholic and private school students compared with their public school pupils.
He described many Catholic institutions as “achievement-oriented” schools that attract successful parents, who either directly or indirectly place increased academic pressures on students. A school’s emphasis on high test scores and expectations to attend a top college can create additional stress. Mr. Petitfils also notes that teen suicide was already on the rise before March 2020, when Covid-19 forced the country into lockdown. “We layered a pandemic on top of an epidemic,” he said.
Two years ago, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that adolescent suicidality, defined as “suicidal thoughts, plans and attempts,” increased between 2011 and 2021, with more than one-fifth of U.S. high school students reporting serious thoughts of suicide over a yearlong period. (Young adult suicides initally declined during the early months of the pandemic.)
A school’s emphasis on high test scores and expectations to attend a top college can create additional stress.
Gerard J. McGlone, S.J., the former chief psychologist at the Pontifical North American College, in Rome, told America that marginalized communities, which he calls “under-served, under-treated and under-researched,” demonstrate the greatest need for care. “When we see the levels of trauma that exist in marginalized communities, just having awareness and psycho-educational interventions go a long way in relieving some of the effects of the trauma,” said Father McGlone, now a senior research fellow and former psychiatry professor at Georgetown University.
Adolescents of minority racial and ethnic backgrounds are at an increased risk for mental illness, but these youths have less access to counseling when compared with white teens, according to the American Psychological Association. A recent national survey on the mental health of L.G.B.T. youth revealed that 41 percent of respondents seriously considered suicide within the last year, but a majority of adolescents who sought help could not access it. Father McGlone said it is especially important to accompany transgender adolescents, who experience even higher rates of suicidality than their lesbian, gay and bisexual peers.
So what can be done? Mr. Petitfils said it is necessary to raise parent awareness about the risk factors for mental illness and to provide adults with the tools to recognize a child in danger. “Grades falling is an automatic indicator that a student is probably in crisis,” he said. Further, Father McGlone said that social isolation, sleeping less and a “radical change in behavior” are signs that a student’s mental well-being is under threat.
Mr. Petitfils also stressed the need to listen to young people and pay close attention to their needs. Signs that a person is struggling may be subtle and easily overlooked. “The biggest gold mine for [counselors] in terms of how to direct our energies is the students themselves, and that’s what we see in the Vie Bénie work,” he said. “As a former educator and campus minister in a Catholic school, I can tell you that the best initiatives always came from student ideas.”
Catholic institutions and dioceses have taken action to address this ongoing crisis. The Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers aids Catholic parishes and dioceses in starting groups focused on mental illness. Their reach extends to 31 ministries in 20 states and Washington, D.C., including the archdioceses of Baltimore, Cincinnati and Seattle.
Last month, Vie Bénie hosted a crawfish boil at a concert hall as a fundraiser. The group hopes to extend access to mental health resources to all high school students in Greater New Orleans.
“We believe that everyone deserves access to quality care,” the nonprofit said in a statement.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call the national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or visit the nearest emergency department.