Brianna Heldt is a writer, speaker, and radio show host. She blogs at www.briannaheldt.com, has been a featured guest on BBC Radio, and her work can regularly be found in other online publications as well. A convert to the Catholic Church, Brianna explores topics ranging from faith and social issues to adoption and large family life. She and her husband make their home in Denver, along with their eight children.
Our small neighborhood, just west of the Rocky Mountain foothills, is dotted with old trees and red barns, a series of large lots teeming with horses, alpacas, turkeys, and burros. (For our part, we have raccoons.) I’m told that once upon a time, all of this land comprised a dairy—one of the homes, still standing, was the creamery, and is now reputed to be haunted by a cigar-smoking ghost named Heck. Ghost or no ghost, it’s a peaceful place to live, with plenty of room for children to run, play, and explore. That’s why we bought here, and why we love it so very much. Our kids are living a childhood free from the hustle and bustle of city life, where people are outnumbered, exponentially, by livestock.
We are also, oddly, nestled between two different prisons. One is a federal penitentiary, and the other is a juvenile detention center for both girls and boys, ages 10 through 20. Though it’s admittedly strange to be passing by fences with barbed wire on our way to and from the grocery store, I don’t usually think too much about it. I’ve become accustomed to seeing them. They are merely part of the background here, like the horses occasionally clip-clopping past my house.
The juvenile detention center, as it turns out, is getting some national attention right now. Two young inmates have taken their own lives there in recent months—the first in June, and the second just this past week. I was stunned when I first read about it, and can’t quite wrap my head around how horribly sad the whole thing is.
Yet as hard as it is to believe, and lest we think this tragic problem is limited to the incarcerated youth tucked away in my neighborhood, two additional children in the neighboring Littleton Public School District have also committed suicide this past week. One of them was found on an elementary school playground, the other at a mall. Locals here are, of course, heartbroken, asking the ever-elusive why, and wondering what to tell their own children.
Three Denver-area young people have committed suicide within three days, and ten miles, of one another.
I would say, without reservation, that I love living in Colorado. l love sitting on my deck, and watching the sun set over the Rocky Mountains. I love the friendly, down-to-earth people, the stunning beauty of the aspens in the fall, and building a cozy fire on snowy, wintry afternoons. You absolutely cannot beat the natural beauty of the mountains, lakes and rivers, or the general openness and warmth of the culture here. Colorado is, in my totally biased opinion, a wonderful place to call home.
But Colorado has a bit of a suicide problem. We rank near the top of the country with our overall suicide rate, which continues to climb ever-higher. A Newsweek article last year detailed the rash of teen suicides in Colorado Springs, and statistics show that El Paso County (where Colorado Springs is located) holds the distinction of having the highest teen suicide rate in all of America. Nationally, more than three-times the number of teens are committing suicide than did in 1950 so, it’s kind of a problem everywhere.
Various experts have offered up theories as to why this might be the case—all seem to agree that the internet and social media factor heavily here—but at the end of the day, everyone is still fairly unsure as to how to prevent it from occurring. Last year’s Netflix release of Thirteen Reasons Why (incidentally, based on a book whose author hails from the small, affluent town where I attended college) certainly put the spotlight on teen suicide. But still the phenomenon confounds and concerns both professionals and parents alike, myself included.
When I think about the three local teens this last week who, in a moment of rash judgement not so unusual for someone their age, took their own lives, I can’t help but think of my own children. More specifically, my three middle-schoolers. They’re educated at home now, but during their years in a public charter school they certainly encountered more than their share of bullying, and hurting and struggling peers. I’m more or less convinced that no person is immune to suicidal thoughts, or from making a destructive choice in a difficult moment. Suicide touches people from all backgrounds, classes, and religions, and though I do my best to keep an open line of communication with my children, I’m not stupid enough to believe anything is fool-proof. Just because my kids are being raised in a Catholic home, with traditional Christian values, does not in any way guarantee, well, much of anything.
But we must also guard against believing that attempts at self-harm are always completely inevitable, or that they have no contributing factors. There is no doubt in my mind that the coarsening of our culture, the loss of a basic understanding of natural law, and the advent of social media-induced isolation have all at least contributed to the suicide crisis facing Colorado teens today. We have created an environment hostile to truth, goodness, and beauty. When people don’t believe that they were created by a personal and loving God, when teens are hopelessly confused about their sexuality and personhood, and when bullies have free reign to make other students feel worthless, we are seeing a societal breakdown in action. When broken homes outnumber intact families (led by one mother and one father), we are witnessing the destruction of the world’s original social safety net. When a child’s entire world resides in his or her hand-held device, we are seeing a fractured existence. And, the repercussions are deadly. We parents try so hard to make sure our children know that they are loved and valuable, but we’re perpetually swimming upstream.
The culture, simply, isn’t helping us. And at the same time, we are all guilty of sin. We are all part of the problem.
My Catholic parish has recently begun an initiative called “Rebuilding the Culture.” Courses in things like Latin, sacred music, and art appreciation are being offered for all ages throughout the fall. There will also be a catechesis program for families, a book club studying St. Augustine’s Confessions, and one-time lessons in things like home-brewing (this is Colorado, after all.) The idea is to, as a parish community, rebuild our culture from the ground up. To pursue the good, beautiful, and true in our lives, in order to live better and then evangelize the culture with the beauty and hope of Jesus. As a parent, I believe it is an immense gift to have my parish accompanying me and my family on this journey. My husband and I can’t do it on our own. Our kids can’t do it on their own. We need one another, and we need Christ’s Church.
As to what has happened here this past week, I hope and pray that my community has seen the last of these horrible, unspeakable tragedies. My heart goes out to the families and friends of the victims, and I hope that over time they might find peace. I also hope that Colorado teachers, administrators, parents and counselors can work together to make our beautiful state a safer place—physically, emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically—for teens. This is an undeniably difficult phase of life. We need to make it easier.
When I see the youth detention center off in the distance now, beyond the grazing horses and alpaca farms, I immediately think about how two precious young people recently lost their lives to suicide there. It’s just a stone’s throw from my own backyard, but in some ways it’s close to home for another reason. I have vulnerable teenaged children living under my roof, too. I’m trying to raise them to know and rest in the mercy and love of Jesus. To recognize the culture’s subtle, dangerous lies. And to fight back with the truth. It doesn’t mean nothing bad will happen. But we have to try.
As their mother, I certainly can’t know the future. Perhaps one day one of them will carry the cross of mental illness, addiction, or intense loneliness. Perhaps they will go on to suffer a devastating loss or experience the anguish of wondering whether it’s worth it to go on living. Sometimes tragedy seemingly comes from nowhere, and makes little sense. Regardless what happens, I can only humbly hope and pray that they remain close to Christ through the sacraments, wrapped in the protection of our Blessed Mother’s mantel. For my part, I will continue to pray for, shape and guide the little ones God has given me. I believe that through Jesus and His Church, we can do our best to rebuild the culture, one home at a time.