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8/3/2017 9:00:00 AM
'13 Reasons Why' TV series sparks creation of mental health committee

(Father VanDerveer is pastor of St. Mary's parish in Coxsackie and St. Patrick's in Ravena. He wrote this in the parish bulletin after there were three suicides in his community.)

This summer, our communities have had an unusual number of deaths by suicide, something that is terribly hard for many of us to understand when a survival instinct seems so essential to our human nature. Those who have never had a suicidal thought can't imagine what could cause someone to be willing to throw away the very gift through which we experience every other gift life has to offer. In fact, many people believe that suicide is an unforgivable sin.

The Church once believed that suicide was a sin that could permanently separate a person from God, but we no longer believe that. Some have said that, if a person commits suicide that they can't be saved, but the Church doesn't believe that, either.

Here's why: When a person gets cancer, it may be found in stage one. If that happens, there's a lot of hope for recovery. Surgery, chemotherapy or radiation may be part of the solution. Often, stage-one cancer goes into remission. Many people experience a cure.

Others find their cancer at a later stage. The prognosis becomes less certain. Some people discover that their cancer is terminal. In that case, the energy that would have been spent on curing the disease is now put into keeping the person comfortable.

When someone gets mental illness, it may be found in stage one, which means there's a lot of hope for recovery. Medication and therapy may be a part of the solution. Often, stage-one mental illness (perhaps presenting as anxiety or depression) turns out to be manageable.

But others have more advanced (stage-four) mental illness. Its symptoms may hard to recognize, but they are debilitating. In extreme cases, when mental illness is of the terminal variety, the end doesn't come in a hospital or hospice. Terminal mental illness ends in suicide.

When a person dies of terminal cancer, we don't blame them for it. We feel compassion and recognize that it wasn't their choice.

That's often not the way we respond to terminal mental illness. Perhaps taking some time to pray and see the wisdom of recognizing the seriousness of mental illness, especially in its later stages, can help us move toward forgiving those who have hurt us so deeply through their departure from us.

What began as a way to address the media furor around the Netflix television series "13 Reasons Why" has ended with the formation of a mental health awareness committee for the Albany Diocese.

The TV series graphically portrays the suicide of a fictional teenager and the factors that led to it, including sexual assault. When the show aired in the spring, it raised questions from young people and concerns from parents, who worried that struggling teens who watched the show might be triggered to emulate suicidal behaviors.

Coincidentally, the Diocese's annual Spring Enrichment gathering was happening around the same time. Spring Enrichment is a series of courses, workshops and keynote talks on aspects of faith that draws many parish youth ministers, faith formation staff, teachers and others who work with young Catholics.

The number of comments and questions about the TV series from Spring Enrichment attendees made it clear that resources around mental health were needed in the Diocese, said Grace Fay, who organized the new committee.

Ms. Fay, the pastoral associate for youth ministry at Our Lady of Grace parish in Ballston Lake and St. Joseph's in Scotia, told The Evangelist that the "13 Reasons Why" series "showed the struggles of a normal high school student, but didn't show the resources that are out there. It made the adults look rather goofy."

Area parishes, schools and college campuses can offer more than that, she thought; so she contacted diocesan officials and others, who all agreed to serve on the mental health awareness committee.

Along with Ms. Fay, members of the committee include:

•  Cathy Reid, diocesan director of campus ministry;

•  David Stagliano, diocesan associate director of campus ministry and youth ministry;

•  Rev. Thomas Konopka, director of the diocesan Consultation Center in Albany, which offers mental health services;

•  Rev. Robert Longobucco, diocesan vicar for Catholic faith formation and education and pastor of St. Kateri Tekakwitha parish in Schenectady; and

•  Brian Evers, diocesan associate director of safe environment, who runs the Virtus program to train parish and diocesan staff and volunteers about abuse awareness and prevention.

The committee's goal is to de-stigmatize issues around mental health for parishes and families across the Diocese, Ms. Fay said.

"Mental health is something that effects everyone, regardless of age or background," she stated. Particularly when young people are struggling, "we need to establish the Church as a safe place for them to come and express what they are feeling."

Ms. Fay cautioned that parish staff are not trained to treat mental health issues themselves, but should be able to connect people with the help they need.

October is Respect Life Month. Since mental health is a life issue, said Ms. Fay, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger plans to focus one of his weekly columns in The Evangelist that month on mental health education and awareness.

During Respect Life Month, the committee will also provide resources for parishes, schools and college campuses on services available for people who are struggling. Other outreach efforts are still being discussed.

Ms. Fay quoted Father Longobucco, who told her when the mental health awareness committee was forming: "We as a Church need to take care of our own people. We need to know who they can talk to and how to get them the resources they need."

(For counseling services and educational programs, contact the Consultation Center in Albany at 518-489-4431 or consultation.center@rcda.org. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.)

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