Teen suicide: Watching for signs

Schools keep tabs on students who are known to or might be at risk of depression or suicidal behavior.

“School is definitely the place where you feel it more, just because you used to have those kids in your class, you used to be with them in the student center. I used to have Zack on the football team,” said David Arturi, a Ridgefield High School senior who has become active in suicide awareness, referring to classmates Zack Lipson, who committed suicide last year, and JJ Brice, who died in a drunk driving accident weeks earlier.

While suicide is rare, attempts are less so. In a survey last year, 11% of RHS students said they had attempted suicide — that’s 180 teens.

“I would never have guessed the statistics would be that high. It shows just how alert and aware you have to be,” David said.

David, who never experienced a death before last year, wears rubber bracelets in memory of both Zack and JJ.

“It made me re-evaluate my relationships with friends, how you really have to look for signs and ask questions. They’re not going to bring it up to you most of the time. They’re depressed, they’re almost embarrassed about it.”

He tries not to fixate on what he can’t change, but he himself has changed.

“It definitely makes you grow up fast when you lose someone,” David said. “You go through the different stages of guilt for not having helped that person, anger for them leaving. … You reach a kind of sick resolution that they’re gone and they’re not coming back …

“All we can do is change how we act in our daily life, how we interact with others to understand them on a deeper level.”

He strives to be more attentive in his relationships, to do what he can to make sure his friends know they’re not alone.

“A person cannot handle depression all on their own,” he said.

He said the tragedy has tempered somewhat the teen party scene, which he describes as fueled by wealth and proximity to cities that make it easy to obtain drugs — not just alcohol and pot, but ketamine, cocaine, ecstacy.

“In our first couple years at the high school, everyone wanted to go out and party and wanted to go out and have fun. … Let’s get drunk, let’s hang out. But as soon as we lost Zack and JJ, it just flipped some switches on some people: What we’re a part of is dangerous. It needs to be controlled …

“There is definitely truth to the statement that there is a drug problem in Ridgefield,” he said.

With a high school’s constantly changing makeup, he thinks it would easy for hard lessons to be forgotten.

It’s unclear if there is any connection, but teenage drinking arrests went way down in the Police Department’s September-through-September stats since last year. Arrests for alcohol possession by minors dropped from 95 in 2010-11 to seven in 2011-12, but it was at least partially attributed to reduced staffing in the department. It was also suggested by police that teens are having smaller parties, rather than big parties that draw noise complaints and police attention.

“I know, at least speaking for myself and a few of my friends, some of the situations that we got into could have been far, far worse and the consequences could have resonated.

“We might even be lucky making it out of this year with just the loss of two friends — and that’s scary.”

David sees how lessons can be forgotten from class to class.

“If you know a younger student — a lot of times  a senior will take a junior or a sophomore out to a party, and that’s how things begin. …

“A lot of [younger students] go back to their friends who maybe were not [at the party] and say, this, this, and this were going on, and it was awesome. They really hype it up.”

David and his peers have worked to raise awareness of suicide since Zack’s death.

Last October, he started a Ridgefield team in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s “Out of the Darkness Community Walk” in Westport and the team raised more than $6,300.

“Knowing when I went on that walk that day, all these people here really lost someone that they loved and it was just terrible to see,” he said.

At the same time, there was a sense of support and even hope, he said. This year he and his peers were invited back as volunteers.

“It’s really to try and make a difference for future kids who are hurting.”

The school’s role

The high school works to prevent suicides and other harmful behaviors, and also to help the student body and entire high school community cope with tragedies when they occur.

“A kid moving through the high school has dozens, maybe hundreds of pairs of eyes on them,” said 15-year Ridgefield High School psychologist Richard Gallini. “When we know something is not right, everybody watches maybe a little more closely.”

“We have a very full, balanced pupil personnel staff,” said High School Principal Stacey Gross. There are guidance counselors, psychologists, a social worker, and a TeenTalk counselor from Kids in Crisis who has an office in the building.

There are also deans who “loop” with classes, staying with them all four years.

Dr. Gross emphasizes the importance of making sure teens have adults they feel comfortable turning to, and to help them build self-esteem.

The district keeps tabs on students who are known to or might be at risk of depression or suicidal behavior. When a tragedy occurs, people close to the victim are identified as possibly in need of extra support.

“The first thing we do is we try to get a list of their friend circles,” Mr. Gallini said.

“We try to make a list of any kid that we know of who has been at risk,” he said, “any kid who has had a recent loss in their life. …

“It doesn’t have to do with being connected to that person, it has to do with being connected to those feelings.”

The schools bring in extra help to handle crises.

“The community really comes around the school,” said Mr. Gallini.

“They’ve made time to meet with kids to be available to whoever might need some help. It’s kids, it’s parents, it’s staff. …

“There’s a lot of guilt that is there because you’ve got a high school full of adults that have devoted their life to helping kids. We all stop and think, could I have done something differently?

“The hard part is, most of the time the answer is no, but that doesn’t make anybody feel any better.”

Subtle signs

While suicide is almost always linked to highly treatable disorders like depression, the warning signs can be subtle, especially to any one person who sees only one part of a person’s life, said Ridgefield psychologist Dr. Carol Mahlstedt, who helps out in the schools after traumatic events.

That’s why Mr. Gallini says people need to err on the side of overreaction, not dismiss concerns — even though people are wired to do so, to some extent.

“It’s a coping mechanism to avoid things that are unpleasant to think about. It’s much easier to think, ‘That can’t happen to my child, that’s somebody else’s situation,’” Mr. Gallini said.

“It’s depression anxiety that leads to suicide — that’s not something that happens just overnight,” he said. “I think a lot of parents don’t want to see their child as depressed — who does?”

Mr. Gallini and the school’s other professionals follow up on tips from students who might have read something on Facebook, from parents, or from teachers.

Recently, Mr. Gallini said, “I got a phone call from a parent who was monitoring her child [online] and saw some concerning things in another child.”

Since the vast majority of suicidal people reportedly suffer from depression and other psychological illnesses, even a false alarm about suicide can signal that a person is in need of some help.

Still, “if you under-react, that could be a permanent mistake,” he said. “If you overreact, you use insurance money, you have a bad night in a hospital, but you go home with your child.”

This is the third article in a series about suicide in Ridgefield.

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  • RidgefieldParent

    I appreciate the focus on suicide given the events mentioned in the article. Also appreciate that students are working to bring focus to the issues.

    I believe the school means well, but from practical experience with multiple students I believe they are displaying a public persona that portrays a better situation than actually exists with their current support programs.

    Ultimately it’s the parents responsibility to care for their child. However, given the large influence high school has on kids at this age the school and by extension the community must also be part the solution.

    The impression I’ve had as a parent and from students is the first inclination when dealing with an student having issues is to consider liability, and subsequently it is to provide pre-defined answers and services that pass muster with policy makers and legal counsel.

    It doesn’t appear in many cases the student with serious needs actually receives the support needed. The programs appear to be geared toward those that have ability to cope and excel under immense pressure but need occasional assistance. This approach fits the profile we as a community expect from our youth, that of over achiever. But what of those that can’t perform and over achieve ?

    Many times the student with serious needs is simply removed from the school and sent away because the system is unable to find a solution that meets the student needs or due to legal or other policy proceedings. This tendency ultimately masks the underlying issues that continue to impact others. It would be interesting to correlate of the those students with serious issues how many found success in the current system and how many were removed and sent to other programs.

    I don’t doubt those who serve our students want to help, however, the current policies, legal atmosphere, and culture of over-achieving doesn’t get to the heart of the issues or acknowledge the true needs. Therefore no real action is taken that can address the concerns in this article.

    Simply raising money or awareness won’t be enough. A change requires those involved such as the students, parents, citizens, policy makers, legal and police community, and politicians take ownership with the focus on the needs of those suffering as opposed to focusing on policy, liability, and reputation concerns.

    There’s a need for open and honest communication, political support, community support, parent support, and state wide policy support that acknowledges there’s a a real problem in our youth, and some could argue the adult population, that leads to the outcomes we’re experiencing first hand.

    There’s also a need to acknowledge that the contributing factors include a complicit and arrogant attitude towards drug and substance abuse, an unwillingness or inability to provide directed outreach and counseling without risk of liability, and, an attitude that those suffering are the violators and need to be punished, isolated, or sent away to solve the problem.

    Change requires that the focus shift to reward those those who take action instead of implicitly or explicitly ignoring the need due to concerns of liability or damage to reputation, it requires a shift of focus to educate and if necessary vilify those that enable casual or social drug and substance abuse because it’s trendy or cool, it requires a shift in focus to reward those accountable that take responsibility to effect change as opposed to rewarding or tolerating those that gloss over the issues in order to preserve the facade that all is well in our schools and community.

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