During Respect Life Month, Archdiocese of New York Begins Youth Suicide Prevention Initiative


The Archdiocese of New York is embarking on a major youth suicide prevention initiative beginning during Respect Life Month in October.


One of the principal components organizers are promoting is a free webinar, titled Hope and Action, for parents of youth and young adults, which will be offered from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 28 and Nov. 3. (For more information, see the graphic on this page, or contact Susan DiSisto at (646) 794-3191.) 

The webinar’s three expert presenters have each experienced loss from suicide. They are Father Chris Alar, M.I.C., author of “After Suicide: There’s Hope for Them and for You”; Dr. Pamela Morris, a professor of applied psychology at NYU, who also speaks as a parent who lost a teen to suicide in 2019; and Stan Collins, who has trained close to 1 million adults and youths on the subject of suicide prevention.


The archdiocese’s suicide prevention outreach was initiated early this year at the personal direction of Cardinal Dolan.

Dr. Kathleen Wither, director of the archdiocesan Family Life Office and chair of the committee formed to guide the initiative’s implementation, recently told CNY that the webinar would not be strictly limited to those in the Archdiocese of New York.


“If you’ve got a friend in Wyoming and they want to attend this webinar, the answer is yes,” she said.


The youth suicide prevention committee features participation of several archdiocesan departments, Dr. Wither said. The problem’s scope is significant, with suicide ranking as the second leading cause of death, behind accidents, among youths and young adults, she said.   


A multi-pronged approach will be directed to students and their parents in Catholic elementary and high schools as well as catechetical and youth ministry programs in the archdiocese.


Cardinal Dolan, in two videos, addresses students in grades 7 to 12 and their parents, and high school leaders, including presidents and principals and faculty and staff.


The cardinal’s message to students and parents focused on knowing their own value and taking care of themselves.


Noting the Covid-19 pandemic that disrupted life in New York and across the world, Cardinal Dolan said some students may have “struggled with different emotions,” which in some cases they may still be experiencing.


Those emotions can be powerful, the cardinal said, and can lead students to feel angry, or sad and unhappy.


Speaking to the Catholic school students as “people of faith,” Cardinal Dolan said it’s important that they remember “the strength within our faith.”


“Never are we alone,” the cardinal said. “We are deeply loved by God, no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done.”


Christine Cavallucci, executive director of the Archdiocese of New York Drug Abuse Prevention Program (ADAPP), told Catholic New York in an interview last week that being willing to talk about suicide prevention is a key first step.


A popular misconception conflates talking about suicide with an increase in suicidal behavior, when research shows the opposite to be true, she said.


“You have to reduce the stigma around mental health and suicide in order for people to talk about it,” Ms. Cavallucci said.


Catholic schools of the archdiocese “are addressing mental health, which is now a state requirement,” Ms. Cavallucci said. “They’ve incorporated social and emotional learning. They have embraced the idea of mental wellness for both teachers and students.”


Ms. Cavallucci, who has more than 35 years of experience at ADAPP, said that children must know that “sometimes you are not feeling mentally well, and who to go to when you are not feeling mentally well.”


“Every child should have a connection to somebody in the school building, an adult, to provide them support to get the help.”


She said parents and teachers, who serve as “gatekeepers,” have to understand the risk factors and warning signs, “so they can then ask if (a student) is feeling suicidal.”


One element of the suicide prevention program mandated for Catholic school eighth-graders and also available to Catholic high schools is Kognito’s Friend2Friend module on mental health and suicide prevention, a game-based simulation for adolescents that builds mental health awareness, knowledge and skills while reducing stigma.


Friend2Friend prepares youths to recognize signs of distress, reach out to a friend they are concerned about and help to identify a trusted adult for support.


After hearing Dr. Wither speak about the suicide prevention initiative earlier this year, Sister Virginia Joy, S.V., director of the archdiocesan Respect Life Office, told her that the existing Respect Life curriculum already addressed “depression, anxiety, loneliness and suicide” in one of its lessons.


“I was glad there was such an interest in providing the students with tools and resources on this topic,” said Sister Virginia Joy in an interview last week.


The endeavor takes on more importance because of the pressure all people, especially teens, experience today “to create their identity and worth,” Sister Virginia Joy said. “Their dignity is inherent. They are these irreplaceable, unrepeatable individuals. Kids don’t know that enough.”


The Respect Life curriculum, now in its fourth year, will be expanded to two weeks—one in October during Respect Life Month, and the second in January to coincide with the March for Life.


This year’s Respect Life curriculum covers issues from immigration to abortion as well as marriage and caring for creation.


The suicide prevention lesson, called Knowing My Value, addresses depression, anxiety and suicide.


The lessons are available for students from kindergarten to grade 12 as well as those enrolled in parish catechetical and youth ministry programs. The content is delivered in age-appropriate language. 


“The overall goal of the curriculum would be for each student to know their inherent value,” Sister Virginia Joy said.


The cardinal, speaking in his video about sources of love and support in the students’ lives, cited Jesus’ divine love, and encouraged them to offer a very simple prayer to Him anytime they are in need.


He suggested their families and friends as sources of support and love, and included himself as well as their parish priests in that number.


“Your life is precious,” Cardinal Dolan said. “I love you. Never do I want anything destructive to harm you.” 


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