Youth wellness initiative a mission of accompaniment

Bishop Tobin’s Youth Mental Wellness Task Force produces support guide for parishes and schools


PROVIDENCE — Loneliness, depression, disconnection from other people, even suicide — these have become major issues affecting young people today in greater numbers than ever before. Those numbers had been on the rise for nearly a decade prior to the pandemic but have been exacerbated since then. Many signs of mental illness include emotional changes, social withdrawal and increased isolation from others.
Within the Church, one should never feel alone. That is why Bishop Thomas J. Tobin created the Diocese of Providence’s Youth Wellness Task Force last year. In it, he expressed concern over the issue, particularly its impact on the youth of today, yet he remains hopeful that the Church can play an important role in the lives of those who suffer from mental illness of any sort.
“I am convinced, however, that the faith community, the Church, has a unique role to play in responding to this crisis,” he stated in a letter addressing the issue. “We have professional, pastoral and spiritual gifts we can bring to help support and heal the wounded and frightened members of our community. And, as always, we trust that our human efforts will be complemented by the powerful grace and unfailing compassion of our Heavenly Father.”
The lingering effects of the pandemic, overuse of social media, fears fueled by the secular media, the fast pace of daily life and other factors contribute to the mental decline of many young people, and parents, teachers and priests need resources that can help them accompany young people in their times of need.
The task force is led by psychologist Dr. Michael Hansen and consists of professionals within Catholic schools, ministries and churches throughout the diocese. A large part of its work was to create “a booklet of informative, helpful information for our schools and parishes that was completed through the Office of Communications and Public Relations,” Hansen said. These were delivered to all schools and parishes throughout the diocese.
“The booklet sums up the kind of information that was provided; essentially, information that we thought would be most useful for personnel in our schools and parishes in supporting our young people, particularly those with mental health challenges,” he said.
Its purpose, he continued, is to provide “some possible indicators of mental health difficulties among our youth and how to respond in a helpful way.”
The booklet also includes a list of both local and national resources that might be available as well.
Father William J. Ledoux serves as pastor of Holy Apostles Parish in Cranston and also on the Parish Subcommittee of the overall task force.
“More than ever before, mental health has not been addressed properly,” Father Ledoux told Rhode Island Catholic. While he hesitates to use the word “stigma,” he acknowledged that there is a certain reluctance to speak about mental health issues, even in the Church.
But Bishop Tobin’s task force has changed that. Father Ledoux spoke of how he and others on the committee were happy to see the Church become involved in this critical issue, along with Bishop Tobin’s foresight in addressing it.
“The Church has so much to offer for well-being,” he stated. “We’re here for the wholeness of the individual.”
Father Ledoux recalled the impact school closures had on the students during lockdown at his previous assignment of St. Mary in Cranston.
“That in many ways was when the mental health issues began to show,” he said.

The important thing about the Wellness Task Force is that it helps identify students in need quickly and can connect families with resources that they might not otherwise know are available.
Father Ledoux said that people who suffer from mental illness need to know that “this is not the end of the road … Bishop Tobin wants us to co-journey, to walk with them.”
In his many dealings with families, often in the midst of tragedies, Father Ledoux witnesses firsthand the “difference when a family is faith-filled. A lot of times … they know they’re not alone, that we’re walking together with God.”
As young people spend more time at school than almost anywhere else, it was vital that administrators were involved in the program. Keith Kline, principal of St. Philip School in Greenville, sees to the welfare of students in preschool up to eighth grade.
Wracked with worries over school shootings and illnesses, Kline said, “Students are more concerned about coming to school,” and families are facing challenged. In addition, young people are spending increasing amounts of time on electronic devices and away from genuine social interactions, all of which can lead to mental health issues.
“Even with our younger friends, we’re seeing kids who don’t have the same focus,” he said.
Many of the preschool-age children now beginning school are the “COVID babies,” who are coming into schools “with limited interactions.”
Kline spoke of the difficulty that many of these young students face in learning social skills.
That is why, at St. Philip, the theme of this school year is “Manners Matter.” Kline said that every day, students are greeted at drop-off by members of the National Honor Society, and are rediscovering that physical interactions such as hugs, high-fives and fist bumps are acceptable and even necessary human contact.
Though he admits that it is “too early to see the full benefits” of the task force, Kline said, “families are getting the aid they need.”
Unfortunately, the problem is not likely to go away soon. The hope is that the Youth Wellness Task Force can serve as part of the solution, however.
“The more and more isolation we see … the more and more we’re going to see these problems,” Kline concluded. “Mental health is a big issue across the nation, so it was prophetic for us to get ahead of this one.”
To learn more about the Youth Mental Wellness Task Force, log on to