Saturday, May 8, 1999

Faith in troubled teens

A spiritual connection
can help immunize youth
against the deadly effects
of a toxic society

We invest too little in turning kids around

By Andrew Weaver and James Garbarino
Special to the Star-Bulletin


Many stories of courage and humanity have been told about the students and teachers at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. None is more compelling than that of 17-year-old Cassie Bernall.

Cassie was sitting at her desk reading her Bible when the gun- and bomb-wielding fellow student confronted her with the question, "Do you believe in God?" When she responded "yes," he shot her point-blank in the head.

Her parents told Peggy Wehmeyer of ABC news that when Cassie was in the ninth grade she had developed a gloomy view of life and become enthralled by suicide and alcohol and drugs. It was after she became a member of a church youth group that she regained her footing, renewed her hopefulness in life and eventually began reaching out to help others.

Attending Cassie's funeral were numerous members of Victory Outreach, a storefront church in one of Denver's roughest neighborhoods, where Cassie and her friends volunteered and shared meals with prostitutes and drug addicts who are part of the inner-city congregation.

The story of Cassie Bernall's refusal to renounce God has been told and retold since the deadly volleys at Columbine launched a national dialogue about teen violence. But her own brush with trouble and the transforming affects of spirituality often have been left out of the retelling.

Such spiritual connections shouldn't be ignored. They could be a major source of help for teens and their families as they traverse the difficult years from adolescence to adulthood.

The challenges that today's teen-agers face are starkly evident in a recent U.S. News and World Report story comparing the top discipline problems reported by public school teachers in 1940 with those in 1990.

Teachers in 1940 disciplined students for talking out of turn, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls, cutting in line, dress-code violations and littering.

A mere 21/2 generations later, teachers listed the following problems: drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery and assault. Teens and their families, like teachers, are now confronted by a set of issues dramatically different from those of the past. Contemporary American teens live in a toxic society with epidemic levels of alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, violence, pregnancy, child abuse and destabilized families.

Spirituality is often overlooked as a preventive tool for teens and their families trying to avoid such problems. A recent national survey by the Gallup organization found that a large number of American teens believe in God (95 percent), pray alone frequently (42 percent), read Scriptures weekly (36 percent), belong to a religion-sponsored youth group and attend worship services weekly (45 percent).

Surprisingly, more than one in four teens consider their spiritual life to be more important to them than it is to their parents, indicating that they are slightly more likely to attend church or synagogue than adults.

Studies link religious involvement to many positive social benefits. Youth who practice their faith have more prosocial values and caring behaviors and their families are more stable than those without religious commitment.

Communities of faith are a powerful preventive and healing resource for many teens and families facing problems. Commitment to non-punitive, nurturing religious beliefs and activities reduces alcohol and drug abuse, premature sexual activity, depression, suicide and anti-social behavior.

When considering the risk factors for "crack" cocaine use among adolescents, for example, researchers found that in Miami, Fla., religious involvement was a strong predictor of lowered "crack" use. Arizona high school students who did not describe themselves as religious were almost twice as likely to use marijuana than were their religious counterparts.

Numerous additional studies during the past three decades have found that alcohol and drug use decreases among teen-agers who have a religious commitment.

Several negative consequences are associated with adolescent sexual activity and teen pregnancy. Early sexual intercourse predisposes youth to a large number of partners and sexual partners older than themselves in subsequent sexual behavior. Teens who are sexually active are more likely to be involved in delinquent behavior and to use drugs and alcohol than those who are not.

Teen-age parents are likely to drop out of school, creating long-term educational and economic disadvantages. Lower rates of sexual intercourse, fewer sexual partners, and more negative attitudes toward premarital sexual activity have been found in teens who regularly attend church or synagogue and believe religion is important in their lives than in those who do not.

The killings at Columbine High School have highlighted the fear and reality of violence many teens experience. The Gallup Youth Survey in 1992 found that 25 percent of students feared for their physical safety while at school.

Seven percent of teens reported having been physically assaulted, 15 percent of students had had money stolen, and 14 percent had had personal property vandalized on campus.

A disturbing 28 percent of the polled students indicated that peers bringing guns and knives to school is a serious problem.

Teen fears about violence and crime are supported by the facts. Homicide is the third leading cause of death among children and youth under age 21 (National Center for Health Statistics, 1993). The rate of violent victimization for adolescents 12 to 19 years of age is twice that of adults over the age of 25 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1993).

In an inner-city population of primarily African-American children (ages 7-18), researchers found an alarmingly high 85 percent had witnessed and seven out of 10 had been victims of a violent act. Not surprisingly, almost one in three inner-city children were found to be suffering the symptoms of severe psychological trauma similar to those found in combat veterans.

Although religious or spiritual practice is not going to stop all violence, it is a strong preventive factor. In a national study, religious involvement among youth was associated with less likelihood of trouble with the police, fighting, vandalism, gang involvement, physically hurting someone and use of a weapon to steal.

Another study compared 33,397 high school students in 112 midwestern communities. The researchers measured 16 problem behaviors in seven areas: tobacco use, alcohol use, illicit drug use, sexual activity, depression and suicide, anti-social behaviors and school problems.

Communities with a majority of high school students attending religious services at least once a month were twice as likely to be among the communities with the least problem behaviors among youth.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the United States among those under age 21. For 15 to 19 year olds, the rate of suicide in 1950 was only 2.7 per 100,000. By 1990, the rate had grown to 11.1 per 100,000 -- an increase of more than 400 percent (National Center for Health Statistics, 1993).

Experts estimate that for each completed suicide there are 50 to 100 adolescent suicide attempts. The Gallup Youth Survey found that six teens in 10 knew someone who had taken his or her life. Research indicates that the risk of taking one's life is lowered for frequent church or synagogue attendees across the life span. Nurturing forms of faith provide a buffer against hardships and losses, diminish isolation and encourage hopefulness while offering an active support system.

Since commitment to non-punitive, nurturing religious beliefs and activities reduces alcohol and drug use, premature sexual behavior, depression, suicide and antisocial behavior, as well as increasing prosocial behaviors and enhancing positive coping strategies among teens, religious communities are crucial resources offering good medicine to teens and their families in our all-too-toxic society.

The facts underscore the need for clergy and other religious leaders to learn how to competently recognize mental health problems in teen-agers and train members of their faith communities to provide emotional support to adolescents and their families, while fostering greater cooperation between secular and religious groups working with teens.

In a toxic society such as ours there are many avenues for those who would help. Detoxifying the society itself is one such pathway, but strengthening children and youth to resist what social and cultural poisons do exist is another.

Andrew Weaver is a member of the clinical faculty
at the University of Hawaii Department of Psychology and a
clinical psychologist at the Hawaii State Hospital. He is co-author
of "Counseling Troubled Teens and Their Families."

James Garbarino is a psychologist and the co-director of the
Family Development Center in the College of Human Ecology at
Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He is the author of "Lost Boys:
Why our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them."

We invest too little in
turning kids around

By Sidney Rosen
Special to the Star-Bulletin


In the wake of the Columbine High School tragedy, the need for safe and secure campuses is uppermost in the minds of students, parents and educators. How to reach that objective is the challenge.

The most common responses have been increased security, more police and metal detectors. I don't believe that is the road to follow.

Pogo had it right when he said, "We have met the enemy and he is us." The problem of school violence is not going to be solved by trying to keep problems out.

If we learn nothing else from the events in Littleton, Colo., we should learn that the potential for violence walks among us. It is not over there. It is right here.

The Trenchcoat Mafia members saw themselves as a pack of losers. They were the kids outside of the mainstream, the outsiders that can be found in any school. They are the ones labeled gangsters, weirdos, troublemakers and psychos; and we try to ignore them.

I wonder what labels Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold wore, and how more security personnel, police officers and metal detectors could have stopped their rampage. Not unless the school was ringed with sand-bagged machine gun emplacements or high prison walls.

These two boys were putting out all kinds of signals that something was terribly wrong, but the warning signs went unheeded. They were raging inside, and this rage finally exploded into horrible violence.

Could it have been prevented? No one really knows, but I believe that it was possible.

In a group discussion at the Adult Friends For Youth (AFY) office recently, a student said, "Columbine could happen anywhere, if nobody pays attention."

Attention appears to be the key word. In the same group, an adult posed the question, "If you were building a bomb in your room, would your parents know about it?" The answer was, "No."

Are we just too busy to pay attention, or do we pay less attention as children grow older? If we believe they need less attention, we are wrong.

A study of high school students turned up some interesting comments. Students pleaded for their parents to have conversations with them, like they do with other adults.

Having parents listen to them was very important. They also said, "Make your children feel wanted. Tell them that you love them."

I've pondered, as no doubt every mental health professional has, what could have been the state of mind of these two shooters at Columbine.

The concept of life positions -- developed by Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis -- provided a valuable insight for me.

Berne wrote of four life positions. The most deadly he called the minus minus position, later popularized as "I'm not OK, you're not OK." This position is both suicidal and homicidal. It is the position in which the person values neither his own life nor the lives of others. How these two students could come to be in this state of mind is the puzzle.

In the experience of AFY, changing the attitudes and behaviors of severely disaffected youth defies a quick and easy fix. It takes love, time and skill just to establish a trusting relationship. When the relationship is established, change tends to follow.

AFY has spent over 10 years working with troubled youth and youth gangs. In the process, it has developed a cutting-edge replicable and teachable methodology that is described in its book, "Toward a Gang Solution: The Redirectional Method" (National Resource Center for Youth Services, University of Oklahoma, Tulsa, 1996).

Ironically, despite the fact that AFY is a Hawaii-born and developed program, despite its national leadership in the alienated and violent youth field, and despite the high health, safety, police, prosecution and correction costs if services are not provided, the state Office of Youth Services, in an apparent decision to walk away from programs for high-risk youth, has eliminated AFY's funding as of July 1, 1999.

It was only $90,000 per year to begin with, but that is still a very significant sum for an agency that has learned to stretch every dollar while not sacrificing the services of a highly skilled staff.

The plea of not enough money is absolute nonsense. There is plenty of money. The issue is the way our lawmakers choose to spend it.

Ask the people of Littleton if $18,000 a year to provide service to the Trenchcoat Mafia would have been too much. That is Adult Friend For Youth's approximate cost for serving a high risk group of only 10 members.

Sidney M. Rosen is chief executive officer of Adult Friends For Youth

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