Building Life: Faith Responds to Fear
Nancy Lincoln Reynolds,Associate Pastor, Woods Presbyterian Church, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor
There is an underlying anxiety in our community that, on the surface, is about teen suicide. The anxiety grows from fear that there will be another loss or many others. Fear that I, as a young person, might succumb to depression/an eating disorder/self-injury; or that one of my friends will and that I will not be able to stop it.
As a parent, I fear that I may ignore a sign and lose my child; or, worse, that I will cause harm. As a teacher, or coach or mentor, knowing that stress can trigger all sorts of mental illness, the fear is that I might become "the last straw." None of us wants to miss our cues or make mistakes. Performance anxiety is on all fronts.
"Why can't we talk about having meaningful lives instead of successful lives?" asks one concerned teenager. Adults want to adamantly counter, "These are not mutually exclusive!" Yet many would argue that we measure success not so much by whether or not our youth are happy, well-adjusted and following their inherent individual giftedness but by performance. Some teens say they believe that the quality of their uniqueness is not as valued as the quantity of their AP classes, GPA's, team placement and wins. Have we unintentionally taught our children that having a life they enjoy and are fulfilled by is secondary to achieving success in the school, or on the field or stage?
We have taught our kids how to keep going no matter what…in spite of what they are feeling. Contradictory emotions are part of what it means to be a teenager, but we don't seem to have fostered an environment for them that teaches them how to manage those feelings. "I can't believe my best friend would say that about me/my parents are divorcing/I didn't make the team…but now I have to go to class/practice or study," is not an uncommon scenario. Perhaps there is something about the performance mindset of our community that has resulted in our having dysregulated kids lacking coping skills.
The majority of youth who are suicidal have some form of named emotional turmoil (depression, addiction, anxiety and their various manifestations like eating disorders and self-harm)and are in treatment. But many more are describing conversations with undiagnosed friends about feelings and behaviors that professionals would say warrant clinical intervention. These youth look "good" on the outside while suffering on the inside. They are able to exhibit an apparent competence, and adults are wanting so badly for that to be real that we buy into it.
Additionally, the "signs" we have been encouraged to look for are not necessarily there in a nevertheless at risk kid. Currently, 67% of teen suicides are unplanned. Impulsivity in teenagers is a well-known hallmark, along with the sense of invincibility. Combine that with suicide as an increasingly optional escape from life and it is, quite literally, deadly.
It is no wonder that parents are scared. We can be certain of some things and, thanks to the QPR training from the AACS, programs like STAR and better cooperation among community leadership, there have been numerous interventions that have facilitated help for identified troubled youth. These have saved lives over the last two years.
But fear remains because we don't know what we don't know. What is it about our community culture that allows teens to say they are too stressed and pressured to live? What are we (all of us: parents, schools, faith-based and mental health entities) doing or not doing that some of our children are performing but not thriving? What is the underlying anxiety in our community; and, more importantly, how should we respond?
The Scripture text was clear and directive at an ecumenical service held last Friday night at Woods Presbyterian Church. The faith response to a recent teen suicide in Severna Park was simple: you are not alone, and you are each unique and precious. Youth, parents, teachers, counselors, pastors and administrators gathered together to cry and to grieve; to share words and to pray.
We hold God's love in common. The youth were told in the words of the prophet, Isaiah, that God would set them, like the unique precious gems that they are, in "antimony" (settings that would secure them in place and give them foundations). Regardless of particular religious beliefs…we hold God's love in common. And, now, we also hold fear in common.
Faith is the appropriate response to that fear. Knowing that, leaders of the faith-based organization, Severna Park Area Ministry Group, met this week to organize and plan seminars for parents to be held once a month over the next year. SPAMG will partner with clinical and mental health practitioners and our schools to determine topics that are of ultimate concern to parents such as: helping teens with grief after suicide; bullying; the adolescent brain; perfectionism; teaching coping skills.
These will be held in large educational forums at the Severna Park Community Center. Outside presenters whose expertise will provide us with insight will also allow time for questions and discussion. Religious institutions will offer individual gatherings during the month to focus their particular faith perspectives on the topic.
Regardless of one's faith orientation, we all believe in the futures of our youth. That belief binds us to one another. We are not alone in this. And, at the risk of sounding like a pastor in a public venue, "Thanks be to God for that."