Stressed out teens and mental illness : Learning how to help


By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

A father of a young adult posted a plea on Facebook asking for prayers after his daughter overdosed in an apparent attempt to end her life. The crisis happened last week, the same week that the Faith Formation Office of the Diocese of Davenport hosted a virtual conference of five programs for Mental Illness Awareness Week.

A small group of youths and adults from St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant watch a Facebook Live presentation for Mental Illness Awareness Week last week.

Parents, clergy, ministry leaders and youths from throughout the diocese participated in the virtual conference Oct. 6-9 to learn more about mental illness in teenagers, how to equip themselves to accompany teens, and to develop a collaborative plan to address the disease.

“I’ve been serving in youth ministry for close to nine years now and by far the biggest concern I have about young people is their mental health,” said Tommy Fallon, coordinator of youth and young adult ministry at Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish-Muscatine. He was one of the virtual conference’s organizers.


“I witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of a teen suicide while I was at Our Lady of Victory Parish in Davenport,” he said. His hope for the conference was to “spread awareness of how big of an issue mental illness is and to give parishes and parents tools to feel more equipped when facing these issues.”

Nearly one in five teens 13-18 years old lives with a mental health condition, and suicide is the third-leading cause of death for youths 10-24 years old. Ninety percent of those who die by suicide in that age range had an underlying mental illness, according to the Diocese of Davenport’s Mental Illness Awareness Week Toolkit (

Bishop Thomas Zinkula, in a letter announcing the free virtual conference, re­flected on his uplifting experiences with teens at the Na­tional Catholic Youth Con­ference in 2017 and 2019. In light of the statistics about the prevalence of mental illness in teens, the bishop said it is “sad to fathom that at least 20% of them are suffering in some way.” He wondered “how prepared we adults are to recognize the signs of mental illness and realize the critical role we play in caring for our teens.”

Equipping adults

National speakers Roy Petitfils and Sean Robinson provided insight and guidance to equip conference participants with resources to accompany and care for teens. One of the virtual programs, a Facebook Live event, targeted teens. Fallon and Evan Brankin, coordinator of confirmation and youth ministry for Our Lady of Victory Parish in Dav­enport, developed the youth program and facilitated prayer and Q&A opportunities throughout the virtual conference.

Petitfils, a Catholic speaker known throughout the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry (NFCYM) community, relates to teens in his role as a licensed therapist in Lafayette, Louisiana, and as a dad of two sons. “We protect kids too much,” he told his virtual audience. He encouraged allowing “safe failure.” An example: the teen sets a goal and has the opportunity to succeed or fail at that goal.

He talked about good stress in life — such as exercise, fasting, academics, responsibility, healthy guilt and healthy competition — and bad stress — overt pressure, perfectionism, chronic stress, trauma, shame and unhealthy competition. The year 2020, “is a chronic stress,” he added.

Petitfils identified signs of depression, such as irritability, sadness, withdrawal, isolation, falling grades, loss of interest, substance abuse, too much or too little sleep, aggression, recklessness, illegal activity and suicidal thoughts. The severity, suddenness and frequency of symptoms are key factors in identifying depression.

He also discussed the “big three” factors in suicide — perceived burden, loss of belonging, and impulsivity. A participant asked, “How do parents deal with these problems when they are afraid of pushing their kids away?”
Name the awkwardness of the situation with the teen, ask for permission to talk, and get to the point, Petitfils said. Have micro-conversations in short bursts. Admit that life is hard. “The value of faith is its ability to help you find meaning in your pain.” Suffering is part of the paschal mystery, “but so is the resurrection,” he said.

Self-care is essential

In his second presentation for adults, Petitfils focused on self-care, which refers to the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of a person’s life, appropriate to that person’s vocation, state or ministry. How adults live their own lives sets the example for teens, he said. “You can’t give that which you don’t have.” He noted that the sacraments play an important role in self-care. “They speak to us on an unconscious level and give us hope.”

Learning how to say “no” when necessary to avoid burnout and other signs of unhealthy stress is another element of self-care. Be decisive, explain why you are saying no, negotiate, and suggest alternatives, Petitfils said. A participant asked how to handle burnout in the midst of it. Adults need to consider the proclivities that cause them to put themselves in a situation of burnout, Petitfils said. Another fundamental question to ask: Where is God in all of this?

It takes teamwork

Speaker Sean Robinson works in the Diocese of Columbus (Ohio) Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry. He led the final workshop designed to help parishes and schools respond to the signs of mental illness. Participants explored the key considerations and resources for developing a pastoral response built around a team approach that includes fostering well-being; prevention and awareness; intervention response and referral; post-vention and grief support; and self-care plans.

Robinson told audience members that they play a vital role in helping teens build resilience in life. Faith helps to instill core values that build on that resilience, he said. Spirituality and prayer foster healthy coping skills.
He stressed the importance of building a team approach to address mental illness in a parish or school. He referenced a guide on suicide prevention and identified a variety of other resources, such as the youth mental health first aid website (, National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD, and National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI,

Having plans in place are key to prevention. Parishes may need to collaborate with other parishes and entities to prepare a list of resources to turn to as needed. “We need to be aware of our role to continue to accompany youths and families. We don’t wash our hands of them like Pontius Pilate,” Robinson said.

The takeaways

“The most insidious part of any pain is the feeling of being alone,” Brankin told The Catholic Messenger. For him, the virtual conference helped reinforce the importance of accompanying teens by “simply showing up, shutting up and listening.”

He will encourage his parish to continue the conversation that the virtual conference initiated and to create an immediate response plan that identifies actions and resources to deal with mental illness.

As she participated in the virtual conference, Faith Formation Director Kelley Tansey of St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant thought about a teen suicide in her city about six years ago. It happened before she began working for the parish. “We need to come up with a list of resources and have a plan to discuss what we would do. It’s the idea of being prepared for the worst and hoping it doesn’t happen.”

The virtual conference provided ideas and resources to get that process underway, she said. “I think they did a good job providing information for adults with teens in their lives, and for teens and for those of us working in parishes to have tools to not only help others but to help ourselves.”

She invited students in youth ministry and confirmation class (along with adults) from the parish to participate in the evening program tailored for the youths. They sat outside the church parking lot in lawn chairs, watching the program on a video screen. She thought one of the most powerful takeaways from Petitfils’ talk that night was the idea that kids can help each other.

Her pastor, Father Paul Connolly, also attended the virtual conference. They will continue the conversation with the parish council, which agreed to help sponsor the conference. Other parishes in the diocese also helped sponsor the virtual conference to help cover its costs.The conference “gets us thinking about how we reach out to address a need that gets swept under the carpet,” Father Connolly said. “We can’t do everything (to solve the problem) but we do the best we can.

“The biggest insight I had reinforced and that I hope was received by all who attended was that this isn’t a hopeless battle,” Fallon said. “There are so many things parishes can be doing to partner with parents and teens on the issue of mental illness.” His parish has begun working on a database for referrals accessible to all who work with young people in the parish community.

Don Boucher, who leads the Office of Faith Formation, said the staff organized the virtual conference after hearing youth ministers, parents and other adults raise concerns about the hectic, demanding, stressed-out lives of youths. The conference was not a one-and-done response. “We’re really going to look at how we continue to provide referral resources in this area of mental illness. This is not going to go away.”

This commitment could be an answer to prayer for the father who pleaded for prayers for his young adult daughter in crisis.

The Diocese of Davenport’s Office of Faith Formation has dedicated a page on its website to a wide variety of resources on mental illness awareness. Go to for information.

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