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Diocesan workshop tackles surging issue of suicide among young people

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By Natalie Romano

SAN BERNARDINO—While other eight-year-old girls were dressing Barbies and riding bicycles, Yolanda Siordia was trying to end her life. Not once, not twice but three times. It’s an urge she still fights today.

 “Everytime those thoughts throw me in that black box, I pray,” explains Siordia, now in her early 30’s.

 Siordia shared her story with a rapt audience at the San Bernardino Diocese’s first ever Suicide Awareness Workshop. The August 8th event was led by the Ministry of Educational Services and its newly formed Suicide Prevention Task Force. More than a 100 youth ministers, priests and educators gathered at the Pastoral Center with even more watching via video conferencing technology. With suicide rates rising, recent celebrity suicides and the popular television show “13 Reasons Why,” which graphically depicts suicide, the Diocese felt it was time to address this issue.

 “This is touching our hearts,” says Anna Hamilton, Associate Director of the Office of Restorative Justice. “We want to learn more so we can strengthen our ministries...All life is sacred.” Hamilton asked the crowd to repeat that phrase with her several times.

 Through slides, skits and role-playing, audience members learned the warning signs of suicide and how to respond. For example, use the three “magic words” when talking to someone with suicidal ideation.

 “The most important words once they begin to talk are ‘Tell me more,’ ” explains Hamilton. “Even if it’s the worst thing they can possibly say to you, like ‘I hate you.’ [You say] ‘Tell me more.’ ‘I don’t want to live.’ [You say] ‘Tell me more.’...There are causes that you are going to find.”

 According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, there are roughly 123 suicides per day, making it the tenth leading cause of death. More men die from suicide than women but women have more attempts. Suicide is also the leading cause of death for youth age 10-14, a statistic that shocked educators in the audience.

 “It gives me the chills because those are the kids we teach,” says Maria Downey, Vice Principal of Sacred Heart Academy in Redlands. “It’s something, God willing, that will never happen to our children but we need to be aware. Information like this is the key to preventing suicide.”

 Information is exactly what the Diocese wanted to share following the debut of “13 Reasons Why,” a controversial teen drama on Netflix. The series centers around a 17-year-old girl who suicides and leaves behind cassette tapes explaining why. Concerned that show glorifies suicide, the Diocese sent letters to parents telling them about the show and urging them to talk about suicide with their children. The Diocesan Suicide Prevention Task Force will offer an alternative later this month with the release of a short, narrative video on the subject produced by the Diocesan Office of Media. 

 “We want teens to know we’re talking about it,” says Mary Jansen, Director of the Department of Ministry of Educational Services. “A lot of teens don’t think the Church is relevant. They have huge hurts and not enough people really sit down and talk to them. That’s our job.”

 Siordia walked away from the faith for a time but says coming back has saved her life. As a survivor of sexual abuse, she relies on both professional advice and spiritual comfort to ride out the dark times.

 “I feel scared when that happens but I remain in that moment,” she says. “I hold tight to my rosary or hold tight to my cross and just stay there...Now I know that moment is going to pass even when my mind is telling me it’s not.”

 Some people never find that peace and ultimately end their lives. Then what? Father Steve Porter addressed the theological issues surrounding suicide in his opening remarks. He says we should be “good stewards” of our bodies and we can’t do whatever we want with them. That includes taking our own life.  However, once a suicide has taken place, he says there’s no place for condemnation.

 “We reach out to the families and tell them that God still loves them and God still loves the kid who killed himself,” says Fr. Porter, Parochial Vicar at St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in Beaumont-Banning. “There should be no judgement. That’s God’s business not ours.” 

 Consistent with that theme of compassion, Fr. Porter believes Catholic funerals can be given for suicides. And as views on this subject change so does the language used to describe the act. Experts in the field now say skip the word ‘committed’ when talking about suicide.

 “We don’t say they ‘committed’ because ‘committed’ gives more of a judgemental tone,” explains Hamilton. “We want to address that, the dignity of the person.” 

 As the workshop wrapped, attendees like Confirmation teacher Mike Young say they learned more than they expected.

 “This has been enlightening,” said Young, who ministers at St. Kateri. “It’s answered some questions. I’ve never been in that dark place so it’s kind of hard to understand. It’s been cleared up a little bit.”

 Other Confirmation leaders feel like they’re more equipped to take on a crisis.

 “It helped us be in the shoes of those who are actually going through this and I have a better understanding on how to respond,” says Stephanie Jacobo of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Fontana. “I will go back and share this was my coordinator and our whole team.”  

 Jansen says her Department plans to offer the Suicide Awareness Workshop annually.

 If you or someone you love are in danger of suicide please call 1-800-273 or text 741741. 


Natalie Romano is a freelance writer and a parishioner of The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands.