November 14, 2014

Loved, valued and not alone

Schools, students and archdiocese offer help, message of hope to prevent teen suicides

Victoria Mpistolarides, a senior at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis, prays in the school chapel on Nov. 7 where she and a few friends spoke with their campus ministry director in August after learning of the suicide of a friend who attended Cathedral High School in Indianapolis. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Victoria Mpistolarides, a senior at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis, prays in the school chapel on Nov. 7 where she and a few friends spoke with their campus ministry director in August after learning of the suicide of a friend who attended Cathedral High School in Indianapolis. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

Shortly after school began in August, the Catholic community in Indianapolis suffered the staggering loss of three teenagers to suicide within 23 days. All were students at local private Catholic institutions—one at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School and two at Cathedral High School.

Archdiocesan youth ministry director Kay Scoville described the scene of the all-school liturgy she attended at Cathedral after the second suicide.

“I saw a lot of people in shock and just kind of staring out, empty stares, or grieving, sobbing. There was just a great sense of overwhelming sadness.”

These tragic deaths are unfortunately consistent with suicide statistics for the state: a 2012 Centers for Disease Control study showed suicide as the second leading cause for death among youth ages 15-24 in Indiana, and a 2011 Youth Risk Behavior System Report ranked Indiana second in attempted high school suicides among the 43 states surveyed.

What support do Catholic high school communities—students, teachers, faculty and parents—need in such times of crisis, and what resources are offered by schools and the archdiocese to cope with and prevent teen suicide? (Related: Suicide loss, awareness and prevention resources)

This story explores the answers to these questions, looks at lessons learned, and shares one Catholic high school student’s message of encouragement and hope to her peers.

‘A crisis affects the whole person’

While most schools have counselors, the broad impact of a suicide often requires outside help.

Since the early 1990s, Indianapolis Catholic Charities has offered a school crisis response team through its School Social Work Program.

Tish Pyritz heads up the team of 20 social workers assigned to Catholic schools. She and her team have helped counsel students, faculty and parents in various types of crises, including the most recent of the two suicides at Cathedral.

Pyritz, who has been a social worker with Catholic Charities since 1987, said that “students need an acknowledgment of their feelings, an opportunity to talk, to share memories, to share concerns and worries” immediately after learning of a tragedy. “They need to be allowed to begin the grieving process.”

When Pyritz and her team respond to a tragedy, she said they educate students and faculty “on crisis responses and the grief process, to normalize the feelings they’re having, and to make them aware of responses if their feelings get overwhelming or if after a time it affects their ability to function.

“A crisis affects the whole person—emotionally, intellectually, spiritually—in aspects of development and in behaviors,” she added.

And with Catholic schools, there is the essential faith element to address.

“We talk about the spiritual aspect,” said Pyritz. “We look at where God is in all this. We talk about how prayers are another source of support and coping. … Each person can use whatever type of prayer is most helpful to them. Maybe it’s a mantra or the Hail Mary. For others [prayer is] just a way of talking and asking for God’s help when [they’re] struggling.”

Students and faculty at the school immediately affected by a suicide are not the only ones who need help, said Pyritz.

“Because all the students [come from Catholic feeder elementary schools], often when there is a tragedy of some kind, there will be that ripple effect,” she said.

For instance, with the second Cathedral suicide, Pyritz and some of her team ministered at nearby Bishop Chatard High School, the archdiocesan high school for the Indianapolis North Deanery, where several youths knew the Cathedral teen who died.

Jan Stanich, vice president of marketing and communications for Cathedral High School, is aware of this ripple effect that results from the interconnectedness of the Catholic community.

Because “all of the students are connected through parishes and CYO [Catholic Youth Organization],” she said, the school held a service during the school day as well as one during the evening “for the whole Catholic family,” all communicated via the school’s website “to avoid rumors or misinformation.”

Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School also held two school-wide prayer services to start and end the day the student’s suicide was announced.

“Because we have religion classes, prayer services, sacraments, it’s easy to turn to faith,” said Jesuit Father Jack Dennis, president of the school.

“The chapel was the nexus of grieving that day. It was filled most of the day. Kids in [Catholic] schools—they’ve been raised for moments like this where grace kicks in in their lives. They let down barriers to each other. It has so much to do about God and hope.”

‘A more proactive stance’

News of the second suicide at Cathedral prompted archdiocesan youth ministry director Scoville to visit the school to offer assistance. She also sent e-mails to local youth ministers seeking their help on site.

“It’s not a role we considered for [youth ministers] in the past, but something I would like for the future,” said Scoville. “They saw a lot of their parish youth at the high school. They were able to minister to them during the school day.”

One message rang through loud and clear to her as a result of the three suicides so close together: “The schools did a phenomenal job in responding to the crises, but I recognized that we need to move forward with an archdiocesan plan.”

Scoville and Pyritz began discussing the creation of an archdiocesan pastoral response team.

“We talked about looking at pastors, counselors, youth ministers, campus ministers, principals—those are the primary people I think we would look to for leadership,” said Scoville.

“The role is still to be determined, but the goal would be to assess the situation, determine the needs, and provide resources as quickly as possible to youth, to staff, to parents.

“The other piece is that we really need to reach out to the families that are impacted. Schools are doing a great job, but we need to make sure that that’s a priority, that someone is reaching out.”

Gina Fleming, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Education, is in full support of the idea.

“It was really upon the second loss at Cathedral that we realized there’s a more proactive stance that we need to be taking,” she said.

“We want to have a package to give proactively to help in the education of teachers, staff, students and parents so they have the vocabulary if and when a tragedy was to occur, one of which would be suicide.”

‘All-hands-on-deck effort’

Many high schools have already implemented some form of suicide prevention or mental health awareness program.

Roncalli High School, the archdiocesan interparochial high school for the Indianapolis South Deanery, lost a student to suicide in 2012.

“It’s not as though we weren’t attentive to the problem,” said Lynn Starkey, Roncalli’s co-director of guidance. “But once [a suicide] happens, you feel that you want to be more intentional about [the problem].”

After the suicide, Roncalli’s Student Assistance Program team created a Mental Health Awareness program. Posters with warning signals listed—represented by the green, yellow and red of a traffic light—are visible throughout the school. The information is also shared with parents, teachers and staff. The program includes presentations on teenage depression, stress and anxiety, and substance use.

“The bottom line message is that we want to look out for one another as a community,” Starkey said. “Students and parents are highly encouraged, when they feel concern for a student, to report their concern to our social worker, a guidance counselor, priest, teacher, administrator or coach. It’s a school-wide, all-hands-on-deck effort, and we want to do all we can on behalf of our students.”

But Starkey pointed out that “we don’t have all the answers. Each school needs to do what’s good for their school culture.”

Kim Deffenbaugh, a counselor at Pope John XXIII Elementary School and Father Michael Shawe Memorial Jr./Sr. High School, both in Madison, described plans in place at the southern Indiana secondary school.

“We’ve got an emergency plan to deal with death and disaster,” he said. “We’re formalizing it for suicide.

“Counselors, teachers and other faculty, including principals, and the teens too, especially our peer mentors,” have received information about warning signs, he said. Religion and health classes also do prevention awareness lessons.

“The kids are doing a lot through peer mentoring,” Deffenbaugh added. “A team of [about 40] students at the school do monthly Catholic character values presentations and bimonthly bullying presentations.”

Deffenbaugh accompanied the high school student body to hear a talk given by Nick Vujicic, a Christian evangelist and motivational speaker born with no limbs.

“He said that sometimes kids are bullied who already have a lot on their plate with depression,” said Deffenbaugh. “People don’t realize what other issues kids have going on inside.”

Deffenbaugh plans to meet with a Vujicic representative to take follow-up actions with the students “in regard to bullying, which affects suicide,” he said.

Loved, valued and not alone

While all the preventative plans and measures are crucial, sometimes it is the simple message of one peer to another that makes the difference.

Bishop Chatard High School senior Victoria Mpistolarides knew both of the young men at Cathedral who committed suicide, particularly the first one who took his life.

She was at school when she learned of his death.

“It was really hard,” said Victoria. “I broke down and had to be taken out of class.”

She spent time with Carol Wagner, her school’s director of campus ministry, in Bishop Chatard’s chapel. The two, along with a few others, talked and prayed.

After returning home from a prayer service that same day at Cathedral, Victoria sent an e-mail to Wagner.

“I thanked her for listening all day, for her input,” she said. “I repeated my opinion that each person needs to know you are loved, you have value, you are not alone.”

Victoria was asked to share that message with her peers in an all-school prayer service the next day.

The message that “you are loved, you have value, you are not alone” is now repeated every morning during school announcements. Posters with the phrase hang in classrooms and hallways.

It is a two-way message, said 18-year-old Victoria, a member of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Indianapolis.

“It’s a reminder that we are loved and valued immensely by others around us, and also by God.”

The loss of her friend to suicide has made Victoria “a whole new person on how I treat people,” she said.

“You never know what struggle someone is having internally. I respect life so much more. I let others know I love them because you don’t know when the last time [you’ll see them] is.”

Victoria wishes her friend who committed suicide “had had more faith in himself and God.

“God has unexpected blessings for us. He has a plan for us. I believe this so strongly. I believe that’s what has helped me.”

And for those contemplating suicide, Victoria—who admits she still grieves every hour—advised that they never fall for the lie that “someone else’s life would be the same if you were to go out of it.” †

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