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Nantucket Struggles with Teen Suicides

As many tourists and summer-home owners leave the island of Nantucket, the almost 10,000 full-time residents are settling back into their off-season life, a life that for many revolves around the island's public schools.

But those schools have been traumatized by a streak of teen suicides. Less than a month ago, a recent high school graduate committed suicide, the fourth young person in less than two years. Students return to school this week nervous of what's to come, while administrators and town officials say they're determined to prevent more deaths. WBUR'S Bianca Vazquez Toness reports.

BIANCA VAZQUEZ TONESS: A group of teenagers hangs out in front of a coffee shop in downtown Nantucket. One plays the guitar while the others, including Charlotte Butler, talk.

She says this is one of the only places for kids to go in a downtown dominated by upscale shops and restaurants. She is a junior at Nantucket High school. She worries the latest suicide--just last month--will distract teachers and students from the work of school, as she says two suicides did last year.

CHARLOTTE BUTLER: It does make you feel like it's irrelevant, and it was strange last year because we didn't have midterms, and it's hard to get back into schoolwork.

TONESS: The impact of the deaths has been tremendous. In a town where the school system is one of the largest employers, it's hard to find someone who hasn't been affected.

BUTLER: If you think about it too much it can overwhelm you. I think all of us have had nightmares, especially this week, coming into the school building, and...

TONESS: Page Martineau teaches English at Nantucket High School.

PAGE MARTINEAU: And we have to keep on saying that we're going to be positive. This is a new year, and we're going to get to the work of school and get into our routine and then just hope and pray that that will work and that will tick away the months and nothing will have happened and we'll be back to normal.

TONESS: That's a goal shared by students. But school officials say they can't ignore the problem.

Along with elected officials and psychologists, they're setting up an elaborate network of people to watch for signs of depression in kids and quickly direct them to treatment. So far, they've trained police officers, firefighters, and teachers, and hope to train anyone who works with young people in the community.

On campus, students will have a new counseling drop-in center staffed by two full-time social workers.

GEORGE KELLY: The big thing is we would like it to end.

TONESS: George Kelly, the former principal of the high school, will oversee all of the programs at the school dedicated to help kids with their problems.

KELLY: I don't think you can overreact to any one suicide, but we'd rather have more services in place than less.

TONESS: School systems didn't always act so aggressively in the face of tragedy. A decade ago when there was less research and training on the subject, schools would sometimes treat a student suicide as a private problem and not seek outside help.

Now, psychologists specialize in school trauma. Robert Macy is a psychologist and trauma expert from Harvard University.

He advised Needham and South Boston after multiple suicides in their communities, and now he's helping Nantucket High School. He visited the island shortly after the third suicide at the beginning of this year. That's when he addressed more than a hundred residents at a town meeting.

ROBERT MACY: I started out by telling the people in the audience that it's not their fault. I said that it's not their fault that their children are dying. And that in fact parents' job is not to try and stop their child from killing them self. Parents' job which is actually much harder than that is to sit and actually listen to their child.

TONESS: Macy told them the town was at risk of more suicides, and the community had to be ready to identify and help kids who need it.

As administrators and town officials follow Macy's advice, teachers are taking their own precautions.

English teacher Page Martineau says her department won't be assigning some of the more depressing books on its reading list.

Hamlet is out; so is Death of a Salesman. Romeo and Juliet stays, though. But Martineau is sacrificing one of her favorites.

MARTINEAU: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It takes place in a mental institution, and I just felt I'd like to get away from mental illness.

TONESS: In addition to teaching, Martineau will be one of the many adults watching students for signs of depression and referring them to the new counseling services.

Back at the coffee shop downtown, Junior Charlotte Butler says she's heard about those services, and she's skeptical.

BUTLER: I haven't known anyone who wants to see a counselor; that's because most people are talking to friends and clergy.

TONESS: Indeed, many students say they're just talked out. But to psychologist Bob Macy, that's a good thing. It means many kids are talking. The challenge now is to reach the ones who aren't.

This program aired on September 4, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Bianca Vázquez Toness Twitter Reporter
Bianca Vázquez Toness was formerly a report for WBUR.

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