A youth pastor struggles with another suicide in Laguna

By Sam Ellis

     Can I be honest with you for a second? Like, really honest. Before I was called to serve as youth pastor at Church by the Sea, the departing pastor told me Laguna Beach can be like peeling an onion. As you pull back the layers, you start seeing past the beauty. Keep peeling and parts of the town will cause you to cry. 

       People strive to live at the beach, but eventually learn a nice view doesn’t change the human condition. We still struggle. We still have heartbreak, disease, divorce, and loneliness.  We realize our lives don't look like an instagram’d picture of a perfect sunset under palms swaying in the wind.

      Don’t hear me wrong on this. I love Laguna with all my heart. But every week I also listen to student after student detailing struggles with drugs, alcohol, suicide, grades, self-worth, pain and divorce. 

      I go with students and parents to counseling, supporting courageous struggles to overcome conflict and addictions. I’ve held students in my arms to keep them from attempting suicide. I seldom get through a weekend without warring against the impact of the partying on Friday and Saturday nights.

    On our high school international mission trips, we have sharing time and among 40 students 10 will reveal struggling with suicidal thoughts, or even histories of planning as well as taking actions in contemplation of ending their lives. That number increases every year.

    Students as young as 6th grade carry the weight of parental choices and expectations on their shoulders. I am not in a position to judge, but it is very clear kids are desperate for parents to define boundaries, and keep them safe. 

        It’s not always perfect near the beach, and in fact it can be very a very dangerous place where kids are at high-risk. Here is where I start peeling back the onion. 

Aerial photo of the Hunter Schwirtz paddle out on Oct. 3, 2015. Credit Cyrus Polk

    I get knocked down and usually I get right back up again, but not last Sunday. During my early morning routine of checking instagram, I came across a post about Hunter Schwirtz. I was devastated to find that at age 19, he took his life. He was a popular and well-known surfer and skater that attended Laguna Beach High School. My immediate emotion was to cry. I wept because I knew he was trying to find a way from the dark shadows into the light.

    At high school youth group last Tuesday we tried to comfort and console kids that have watched three alumni overdose or commit suicide in the past year. Kids were broken. You could tell on their faces and in their body language. My number one goal is to tell them how valued and loved each one is, and let them know they are never alone, we are always there for them.

    It’s what we are not collectively saying or doing that is so heartbreaking in these students’ passing. Educators and others who work with young people are called by this new tragedy to ask what more we can do together to keep our kids safe in our homes, in our schools, on our streets, and, yes, at the beach.

    If you are like me, you are tired of crying and cannot keep peeling. What can we do? 

Here are some concrete ideas for change:

    For starters, kids feel trapped in the partying subculture in which there are no boundaries or limits. I constantly meet with so many students who are desperate to get out of the party scene and feel trapped. Trapped because parents are letting it happen in their own homes and providing the alcohol. Students often ask me point blank for ways out.

    I have tried to support and strengthen the anti-substance abuse programs in our city and schools, which lack robust capability. I wonder why we don’t keep teachers and principals that have a heart for this community. How can we better support those that are continuing to do an incredible job day in and day out on our school campuses? 

Ellie, a LBHS senior, consoles a homeless woman in downtown Seattle, WA during the Refuge high school road trip.

    I want to renew my plea with the School Board and City Council to invest in more trained people to counsel and get help for students and parents who are at risk and not safe. If we keep pouring money into multiple large-screen TVs in classrooms instead of focusing on kids’ souls, we are sending the wrong message. Can we upgrade our library downtown to give kids a safe, cool place to go and study? This is not about blame, it is about finding some meaning, value and purpose in a tragedy that should unite us. 

    When I was in college, I knew that if anyone around me was having trouble, I could anonymously call and ask for help. Can we give students somewhere on campus that is visible for them to go for help outside of their current school counselors? The set-up we currently have in place is not working. 

    We have had drug abuse prevention networks and coalitions that preside over grants and policy-making. Please reestablish an effective drug council that consults with ground level issues and start bringing in past alumni and trained specialists to speak to the students about real life issues. Could there be a community meeting to help bring the issues out in the open?

    I constantly meet with students that are weighed down from stress of trying to know the future. Can we tell students in high school, they don’t have to have all of life figured out? Can we encourage their gifts by giving them strength finders testing so that they can hone in on their significance and meaning? Then, this would open them up to the exciting possibilities for their futures, rather than floating. 

Photo of Main Beach taken by local photographer Mary Hurlbut, check out her photos at http://www.maryhurlbutphoto.com  

     Even if it starts with a few of us, let’s work together to combine forces of good in our town and reach out to those who need help.  

    I am just one, but I am not the only one. Let’s learn from this tragedy. In addition to what all of us can do separately, if we can gather in the name of love and commitment to our young people, surely good will come from it.

Sam Ellis is a Youth Pastor at Church by the Sea in Laguna Beach, CA.