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‘No One Wants To Say The Wrong Thing’: Newton Teens Discuss Adolescent Suicide

BOSTON — Karen Douglas. Katie Stack. Roee Grutman.

Those are the three Newton teenagers who recently took their own lives. Their deaths have much of Newton, as well as parents, students and school administrators in other communities, asking painful questions, rarely getting satisfying answers, and wondering how to address adolescent suicide.

Here on WBUR, we’ve spoken with a variety of adults about this tragedy, and now we’re going to hear some younger voices on the issue. Kelsey Fox is a senior at Newton North High School. Jordan Cohen-Kaplan is a senior at Newton South. And Sonya Maria Douglas is a Newton North graduate who now attends Worcester Polytech. She’s also the older sister of Karen Douglas, who killed herself in October. All three spoke with WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer about their perspectives on teen suicide and described the state of mind in their hometown.

Sonya Maria Douglas: I feel like the students are feeling a lot of stress from their parents to produce answers that they can’t readily give. I feel like parents really want their children to talk about things that students don’t exactly know how to talk about or that parents aren’t necessarily willing or ready to hear.

Jordan Cohen-Kaplan,  Kelsey Fox and Sonya Maria Douglas in the WBUR studios with Sacha Pfeiffer. (Courtesy)

Jordan Cohen-Kaplan, Kelsey Fox and Sonya Maria Douglas in the WBUR studios with Sacha Pfeiffer. (Courtesy)

Sacha Pfeiffer: Kelsey, you’re scheduled to graduate from Newton North this spring, I believe. How are you feeling right now?

Kelsey Fox: I feel like it’s definitely the weirdest year of being in school at Newton. No one wants to say the wrong thing. Everyone wants to be supporting the kids and supporting each other, and no one wants to say something that would hurt somebody. But as a result, we’re not really having the conversation publicly, and so there’s not really a lot of community closure.

Jordan, you’re also scheduled to graduate this year, but from Newton South. Is the mood over there any different than you’re hearing it is at Newton North?

Jordan Cohen-Kaplan: Well, the mood is definitely somber. But we lost Roee before February break. And students went on February break, and when they came back, obviously it’s not that they forgot about it. But things were sort of getting back into the swing of things. You know, a dialogue is absolutely necessary. But it’s almost that, you know, we keep reminding ourselves of these tragedies that have happened when sometimes, I think, getting back into the swing of things is the right thing to do.

But how do you get back into the swing of things when there are still so many people clamoring that something has to be done to make sure it doesn’t happen again?

Cohen-Kaplan: Well, that’s a difficult question. And I think there isn’t an answer to that, just like there isn’t an answer to all of these questions we have about why and what caused it. High school for students who are attending high school now is, in my opinion, everywhere, not just in Newton and not just in Massachusetts, an incredibly stressful time. And I think there is a lot of pressure for kids to attend certain colleges and to achieve very well and at very high levels.

And there certainly has been a spotlight in particular on Newton, because many people, even in Newton, have said publicly that they feel that it’s this high-achieving, often high-stress environment, and they wonder whether that is contributing to teenagers sometimes feeling depressed and overwhelmed. Do you have a perspective on if that’s a factor?

Fox: I think that stress is definitely overwhelming. I think that stress comes from different places in different communities. I think in Newton a lot of it comes from looking around and seeing everyday people who you know just getting regularly carted off to Ivy League schools.

Douglas: Having grown up primarily in Natick before I moved to Newton, I can definitely say that it’s very similar in other towns. I think that a lot of students are equating academic success with self-worth and the number of [Advanced Placement classes] that you take or honors classes that you take and how soon you take them. You want to make people proud, but at the same time, are you holding yourself to unrealistic expectations?

Cohen-Kaplan: I don’t think that the school itself can be blamed. Student stress, in a lot of cases, is very self-motivated and self-driven. Before we lost Roee, I was chosen to participate in what we call the SOS training, which is sort of a suicide awareness and prevention that the school was running. So the school has, I think, given a fair bit of thought and a fair bit of support to their students.

We’ve been talking a lot about the stresses caused by school. But I think anyone who’s been your age and is now much older can tell you that being a teenager is really hard. The emotions are felt really intensely, the heartbreaks are really heartbreaking, and it’s a confusing time. So I’m wondering if you feel like focusing too much on school minimizes just how hard it is to be the age you are.

Douglas: Being a teenager is definitely hard. There’s a lot of things that you need to talk about with your parents. There’s things that your parents may have once understood when they were teenagers, and time and perspective has brought them to completely different viewpoints, such as things that have to do with students discovering and playing around and experimenting with sexuality or drugs or alcohol.

Fox: I also think that if we tell kids, “Oh, you’re hormonal,” it’s true. It’s reality, but kids start to wonder when they’re allowed to have real problems and when their problems become something that they can talk about in a serious way.

There’s widely cited research that says that in 90 percent of people who’ve died by suicide, there’s been some mental disorder or there was a substance abuse factor there. Do you feel like there is a reluctance to seek help for those problems or a fear of being stigmatized that’s playing into this?

Fox: I feel like people are starting to come out of woodwork a little bit, especially in light of these suicides. It’s a difficult topic, because once someone says they’re depressed, you don’t know what to do always. You’ll say, “OK, I’m willing to listen to you.” You can say, “I’ll take you to an adult.” But once you’ve taken someone to an adult, once you say, “Call me whenever,” there’s not a clear-cut answer. I mean, I know in Karen’s case she was seriously battling some demons and that was an everyday thing for her. I think a lot of people are trying to say, “Let’s train our kids to spot the depressed kids and to spot the kids who are struggling.” It would be great if we could spot everybody, but we just can’t; it’s such an internal thing. And it’s also a lot of weight to put on a kid to be responsible for picking up on every little signal that someone maybe they don’t even know well, like an acquaintance, is depressed or is suicidal. And if they’re trying to hide it, there’s no way you’re going to find it.

So it’s also the issue of how do we know when there’s someone so depressed that we may need to intercede in a very serious way. Sonya, I’m interested in your thought on this, having been through a version of this with your sister.

Douglas: I mean, like, when I tell people that I’m struggling with anxiety or depression, people usually look at me like I have three heads and they say, “Sonya, you’re the last person that I would expect to be depressed.” They say, “You’re so happy, you’re so perky, you’re so just full of energy.” And that was very, very true with my sister. Even if she was able to tell other people important things and sometimes things that definitely merited adult intervention, she kept the most important things hidden. And ultimately it was those most important things that she felt that she couldn’t cope with.

Cohen-Kaplan: I think people are concerned. You know, “What if I have a friend who’s in a tough place, too? And what if they feel that they just can’t go on any more and that they have to take their own life, too?” It’s very scary. It’s very ominous.

Fox: I think that everybody in the community is looking to label some kids as OK and the other kids as projects. It’s difficult, because the reality is you can’t say, “This person is OK, will always be OK, and won’t ever really need the support that these other kids will need.”

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