PROVIDENCE — Bishop Thomas J. Tobin has created a task force to address the medical, social and pastoral issues connected with the mental health crisis among the youth.
The Diocesan Task Force on Youth Wellness, which is dedicated to St. Dymphna (the patron saint of those suffering from mental health issues), held its first meeting on July 19, and plans on meeting again in the near future.
The creation of the task force was inspired by the desire to counteract the rise of mental health issues, which are particularly pronounced among the youth, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In his letter appointing members to the Youth Wellness Task Force, Bishop Tobin points to a “rapid and intense increase in mental health problems in our society, especially among young people — young adults, teenagers and children,” as the reason he created the group.
“It seems to me that the faith community, the Church, has a unique role to play in responding to this crisis,” Bishop Tobin said, noting that the Church has many “professional, pastoral and spiritual gifts” which can be used for the goal of “support and healing” of those who suffer from mental health issues.
The bishop said that the purpose of the group is to recommend programs and resources to help parishes, schools and other diocesan institutions to address mental health problems.
The task force is headed by Michael Hansen, Ph.D., who received both his M.A. and Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Rhode Island. Dr. Hansen has worked as a practicing psychologist for the past 30 years, and currently also serves as the director of Human Formation for the Diocese of Providence.
“It was at Bishop Tobin’s initiative that the task force was formed in order for our diocese to respond to the current mental health crisis affecting young people at this time,” Dr. Hansen told Rhode Island Catholic, noting that the purpose of the task force is to “promote increased awareness and attentiveness to the mental health challenges of young persons in our diocese and to provide helpful resources and support as needed.”
The other members of the task force are the Very Rev. William J. Ladoux, the pastor of Holy Apostles parish in Cranston; James Power, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Providence; Ed Trendowski, Ph.D., director of Faith Formation; Michelle Donovan, assistant director of Faith Formation; Louise Dussault, director of Youth Ministry; James Jahnz, director of Catholic Charities and Social Ministry; Michael Kieloch, director of the Office of Communications and Public Relations; and Kevin O’Brien, director of Compliance.
Mental health issues have been shown to disproportionately affect young people.
Studies conducted by Columbia University and the National Center of Biotechnology Information have stated that not only are rates of depression and anxiety higher among adolescents than among the general population, but rates of depression have increased more drastically among members of that age group than among members of other age groups.
The sense of anger and uncertainty produced by the pandemic may have also contributed to a spike in mental health issues.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in September 2020 compared findings of mental health surveys conducted between 2017 and 2018 with those conducted between March and April of 2020. The study showed that the number of those with moderate symptoms of depression increased from 16.2% to 24.6%, while severe symptoms of depression increased from 0.7% to 5.4%.
In April of this year, the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a state of emergency for mental health in the state of Rhode Island, stating that the mental health crisis among young people has only accelerated in recent years, compounded by issues such as the COVID-19 lockdowns and the effects of systemic racism.
The organization noted that one symptom of this acceleration is the steady rise in suicides among young people since 2010, and that in 2018 suicide was the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 24.
Organizations similar to the one formed by Bishop Tobin exist in other parts of the Church in America. One of the most notable examples traces its roots to 2013, when, in the immediate aftermath of the suicide of Matthew Warren, the son of the California-based Evangelical Protestant pastor Rick Warren, a grassroots movement made up primarily of religious leaders in California began to work together to help bring attention to the mental health crisis among the youth.
Bishop Kevin Vann, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, was a strong supporter of this movement. Bishop Vann worked with Pastor Warren and his wife to organize a conference on mental health in 2014, and in 2015 Vann established the Mental Health Task Force, composed of parish leaders and clergy, medical experts and community leaders.
The task force led to the creation of various ministries that would organize educational seminars at parishes to bring attention to this issue. In 2018, the California Catholic Conference issued a letter bringing attention to the mental health crisis among the youth, with Bishop Vann being one of the more outspoken supporters of this initiative.
Throughout the country, there are also numerous examples of several parish-based programs designed to bring support for the youth in the Church and the larger community who suffer from mental health issues.
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