Alejandro Bautista, volunteer leader for St. Andrew Parish’s Latino youth group, realized that several of the 14 kids in the group were struggling with depression, including his own daughter.
“She was hiding it very well,” he says. “I hadn’t realized that depression is a huge issue among our teenagers.”
That was four years ago.
Bautista, who himself was depressed as a teen, was soon advocating that the group should become a haven for kids to find support as well as a religious education source.
“Teens need attention and a place where they feel they belong,” says Bautista. “They also want to do something important, to help make the world better.”
Caminando con Jésus now boasts 60 kids and its mission is four pronged.
The teens learn about their faith; they learn about their cultural traditions; they do social justice outreach; and they support one another with the heavy emotional burdens that come with adolescence.
Those combined missions have made the group more meaningful and immediate for youths, says Bautista.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that Latinas have the highest rate of suicide attempts of any group in the United States, with the peak age being 14 to 15 years old.
It’s not just Latinas. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for all teens.
Beyond suicide, an estimated one in five Americans experiences mental illness in a year.
Applying that statistic to your parish may be eye-opening, says Kelsey Rea, coordinator of the Archdiocesan Office for People with Disabilities. Rea says she’s been getting an increasing number of calls about mental illness.
Rea recently sent out a resource guide, “Tips for Faith Communities,” to parishes and is planning a workshop on how parishes can better understand and respond to suicide.
“There is a great need for support around mental health,” she says.
And yet, as Bautista notes, mental illness and suicide are taboo subjects, difficult to address, especially in the Latino community.
Juan Quintero, Latino outreach coordinator for the Clackamas County branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, hopes that will change.
NAMI just finished a free 12-week course in Molalla for Latino families with family members struggling with mental illness. “It was a beautiful experience,” Quintero says.
In the beginning, the families were shy. By the last session, they were freely sharing their experiences.
Quintero, a parishioner at St. Matthew in Hillsboro and a member of the Family Life Commission for the Archdiocese of Portland, says future presenters emerged from the group. New classes are planned in Oregon City and Canby. He hopes parishes will also host future classes, both in Spanish and English.
Bautista, at St. Andrew, tapped into NAMI’s Suicide Prevention Month program for a successful outreach with his youth group last September. The teens each painted a symbol of love and caring on their wrists. They took photos and shared them on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. There was a good response, with other teens posting that the campaign had helped them.
“The teens were telling people we are with them,” says Bautista. “We have the same problems, but we’re fighting. People wrote back and said now they were fighting too.”
“I’m very proud of them,” Bautista added.
The pride in his voice is palpable when he says that two of the youth group members chose to study psychology at college. “They want to help people,” he says.
One of them is his daughter.