Our website is made possible by displaying online ads to our visitors.
Please consider supporting us by whitelisting our site.

A father launches a foundation to improve teen mental health and honor his son’s legacy

First slide
First slide
Previous Next

Conner Worosz was 17 when he took his last breath. The disease that consumed his young life had progressed silently, and nobody around him realized how serious it was. He died by suicide on a fall night, five years ago, just before his parents’ wedding anniversary.

By all accounts, Conner made friends easily. He was kind, handsome, charming, played sports at his local high school, had a job, a circle of friends and a large, loving Christian family. That Friday night, Conner’s father, Tom, had a business dinner. When Tom came home, he found Conner sitting on the couch watching a TV series with his mother, Mindi, and younger brother Jack. When the show ended, everyone said goodnight, and Conner closed his room door. In the morning, he was gone.

Conner tried to reach out that night — he called a friend and told him he was going to kill himself. The friend told his own father hours later. By the time the father called Tom Worosz, it was too late. Conner also tried to reach his cousin, but she was out of reach, hiking in the Shenandoah. She found his message after hearing of his death.

"We can’t just tell them to reach out," said Tom, 51. "Conner had the words, he tried to reach out," he added, his voice breaking. "We need to build support systems that are such that when you need help you have that relationship established, and we need to help them develop coping skills. Most teens don’t want to die; they just want the pain to stop," he said. His family has learned more about Conner’s struggles since then, but Tom readily says they will never fully understand.

September is National Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month, and this pandemic year has both brought to light and exacerbated mental health needs, especially for teenagers who found themselves cut off from the world they knew and thrown into loneliness and uncertainty. Mental health-related emergency room visits for youths ages 12 to 17 increased by 31 percent in 2020 compared to the previous year, according to a study published in July by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This finding does not surprise Michael Horne, a licensed clinical psychologist and the director of clinical services for diocesan Catholic Charities.

"We have seen a rise in depression and a dramatic increase in demand for mental health services," said Horne in a phone interview from his Fredericksburg office. The lockdowns have been incredibly taxing, he added, because "teenagers are so attuned to being with friends." They are reeling from the loneliness, but also looking at many missed milestones, such as senior prom and graduation.

"All that will take a tremendous toll," Horne said. Adding to the anxiety, there is no end in sight and no guarantee there will not be another pandemic later.

What are the red flags showing children are hurting? Parents need to watch out for subtle changes — teenagers who react differently, who don’t laugh at jokes, whose grades are going down, said Lorenzo Resendez, program director of diocesan Catholic Charities Family Services. If they talk about suicide, always take them seriously, he advises. Parents need to "keep an eye out for changes in personality" and changes in routines.

What can parents do when facing these struggles? They can spend time with their children engaging the whole family in a positive way. It is critical to have a strong, positive relationship and it is easier to spot a problem if the family spends more time together, Horne said. Online groups of friends can help teens feel connected to their peers, said Resendez.

Parents also should turn to mental health help as needed. Family Services hired additional counselors to meet the rising demand.

The spring following Conner’s death, Tom started the ConnerStrong Foundation to honor his memory and make sense of his loss by offering tools for suicide prevention.

Based in Alexandria, the foundation sponsors Sources of Strength, a national program run locally by trained students in their schools. Nine local public schools offer it, and others, such as St. Paul VI Catholic High School in Chantilly, Tom’s alma mater, are considering it. The foundation’s website provides a wealth of information to families, teenagers and educators, and helps families who suffered a loss.

In early 2020, George Mason University senior Sehej Johar started volunteering for ConnerStrong as a class requirement. Johar, now 23, was already dealing with trauma and mental health issues then. As the pandemic unfolded, she found herself struggling with suicidal ideation. Her involvement with the foundation was a turning point, she said, giving her a sense of purpose at a time when she was struggling with feelings of hopelessness and lack of direction. "Joining the foundation helped me understand how individuals can contribute to the community." At a time of extreme isolation, the foundation work proved a lifeline that helped Johar, now ConnerStrong’s director of organizational development, feel connected to the community.

Ultimately, Catholic parents need to pray for and with their kids and show them their voice matters, said Resendez. Pray to the Holy Family and especially to St. Joseph, the patron saint of parents, of fathers, of families and of a peaceful death, he said. "It is always consoling to think that St. Joseph is watching over your children."

Chapman is a freelancer in Alexandria.

Read more

Mental health services offered by Catholic therapists, both in-person and telehealth sessions, with fees charged according to a sliding scale based on income and family size:

- Catholic Charities Family Services: in the Fredericksburg area, contact 703/859-3147; Springfield area and north, contact: 703/447-9402.

- Alpha Omega Clinic, with offices in Northern Virginia and in Maryland. Contact: 301/767-1733.

- ConnerStrong Foundation: ConnerStrongFoundation.org. Contact: 703/593-0966

- National Suicide Prevention Hotline:  1-800-273-TALK (8255).

- Crisis TextLine: text HELLO to 741741 to reach a crisis counselor.

Your child’s pediatrician and your insurance can also offer referrals.

If you believe someone is in imminent danger, please escort them to the nearest emergency room or call  911.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021