Tonight at the Newton South High School auditorium, school officials and mental health experts will try to offer some guidance on how to talk to children about suicide and how best to support kids and families reeling from the news of a third teen suicide in this community since the start of the school year.
Tonight's gathering comes after reports that 17-year-old Roee Grutman, a popular Newton South junior, committed suicide earlier this month. (According to the state Executive Office of Public Safety & Security, Grutman's death was a result of "asphyxia by hanging.")
At a memorial service for Grutman last night, hundreds of classmates and family members gathered to remember the "bright, articulate, compassionate" young man, The Boston Globe reports:
"One after another, the speakers at Monday’s service told of a young man who lit up a room when he walked in, and despite his schedule busy with honors classes and sports, always had time for a friend."
According to parents in the Newton South community, many children are still in shock (as are their parents and teachers) and struggling to comprehend the string of suicides in general, and in particular, the death of a boy who appeared to be so well-adjusted, socially connected and stable.
"I think the kids are beside themselves," said Elizabeth Knoll, whose 17-year-old daughter, Anya Graubard, is also a Newton South junior and was friends with Roee. "My daughter was gray and pale and tightlipped for the last two days." (Knoll says Anya gave her permission to be named here.)
Knoll said in Newton — where many kids have been classmates since the age of 4 — Grutman's out-of-the-blue suicide is particularly excruciating. "No one among his family or friends...could see anything like this coming," Knoll said. "It's impossible to make any sense of it."
Still, Knoll said, the kids are gathering together and trying to process these deaths in their own way.
"Anya's been spending an enormous amount of time with her friends — who are Roee's friends," Knoll said. "We told her we feel heartsick about this and we will do anything we can to help, but 'we're not going to make you talk if you don't want to.' And she said 'Thank you, I want to talk to my friends.' Yesterday [before the memorial service] I heard voices in her room — a bunch of them congregated there — and I thought, 'I'm not going to go break in.' I felt they were up there linking arms and steeling themselves... sometimes the kids just need to talk with each other."
Here's some of the letter from Joel Stembridge, the principal at Newton South High School, sent to the community shortly after Grutman's death:
Roee’s death is also so deeply troubling as this is the third student suicide in Newton since the beginning of the school year. We are all extremely concerned about this, and are working with experts in the field to know how to proceed. This issue will be discussed further at the upcoming Tuesday, February 11th at 7:00 in the NSHS Auditorium.
I share this to encourage you to have a meaningful conversation with your children, and to remind them that no matter what they are going through, we (the adults in their life) can help them through it. That things will get better. That we love them, and will move heaven and earth to provide the support that they need...
While many of our students are still working through sadness and other emotions, we are continually struck by the resilience of our young people. It has been a difficult two days, to be sure, and it is also wonderful to witness teachers, staff and students supporting each other throughout the school.
This weekend, it would be helpful if there are opportunities for students to connect with other students in healthy ways, with adults near-by. We want to ask you to think about opening your home this weekend to students in order to create a safe place for kids to gather.
Also, we wanted to be sure that you had information about what to do if someone you know needs additional support. The following community resources are available over the weekend:
• Riverside Emergency Services: (800) 529-5077
• Bridge Over Troubled Waters: (617) 423-9575
• “Samariteens” – Suicide Prevention Hotline: (800) 252-8336
• “Samariteens” – online chat: www.samaitanshope.org/im-here
• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-TALK (8255)
• Newton Police Department: (617) 796-2101 or 911
For more professional advice, we turned to Drs. Steven Schlozman and Eugene Beresin, child and adolescent psychiatrists at Massachusetts General Hospital and directors of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds. They made these points:
• Although suicide clusters are documented in the research literature, they are in fact quite rare. According to the CDC, suicide clusters, while more common among adolescents, account for only about 1%-5% of adolescent age groups.
• Suicide clusters have varied definitions. The CDC defines these events as “a group of suicides or suicide attempts, or both, that occur closer together in time and space than would normally be expected in a given community.”
• Given the rarity of these events, it has been somewhat difficult to establish testable guidelines. Nevertheless, some strategies have shown in limited investigations to have been valuable in preventing further suicides.
1) Develop a community response plan
The principal of Newton South has begun to put together a plan that will assist the community and it is up to the leaders of the community and school system to help foster a plan outlined in his sincere and heartfelt letter.
2) Educational/psychological debriefings
This means having adults, including parents, teachers, counselors and peers discussing their reactions to the suicide, and promoting educational material in school and online so kids and their parents may understand something about why individuals take their lives and the impact of suicide on others. Parents and teachers can be helped to appreciate the risk factors, including depression, substance abuse, past attempts, personal losses, post-traumatic stress disorders and other psychiatric conditions.
3) Provide both individual and group counseling to affected peers
The principal has distributed material to the community for this. However, there can be no substitute for teachers, counselors and caregivers to encourage any teenager who is struggling emotionally to meet with a mental health professional for an evaluation and/or counseling. It is always useful to bring up conversations at home (see below for some tips for parents and teachers to open up discussion).
4) Screen high risk individuals
Many kids who have the psychiatric disorders noted above are at risk. The highest risk children tend to be Caucasian males who have attempted once or more in the past, who have depression or substance abuse. For girls, a past history of depression, substance abuse and previous attempts are also risk factors. It cannot be stressed enough that screening is best done by adults who have close relationships with teenagers. This may be parents, counselors, coaches, clergy, teachers or any adults who know the kids well. Further, kids who are worried about their friends should reach out to them and/or adults who may be able to see if they are struggling.
5) Responsible media reporting of suicide clusters
Kids tend to copy suicides within a two week period of an event, and the event in question may be a real suicide such as this one, a suicide of a celebrity, or even a fictional suicide from a television drama. There are clear guidelines for media reporting such events that prove helpful or harmful to the community. The Society for the Prevention of Suicide and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) have posted clear guidelines for the effective reporting of suicides that would prevent copycat phenomena.
Tips for Parents, Teachers and others talking with teens:
1. Do not assume that your child understands or even knows about the details of the suicide. Use open ended questions such as: “What do you know about this event?” “How does it make you feel?” “Do you understand why someone would want to do this kind of thing?” “Have you ever thought about taking your life?”
2. Remember that most kids and adults think about dying, wishing they were dead or having such transient thoughts from time to time. This is normal, particularly in stressful times of loss. However, there is a BIG difference between the thought of dying, a wish to die, the intent to harm oneself, and a plan of action. If you think your child is thinking about suicide, do not be afraid to ask these questions. Many parents and caregivers worry that just asking will lead the child to commit suicide. That is not true, and there is no evidence in support of this fear, though it has in fact been studies. Asking never hurts. Not asking is likely more dangerous.
3. We all want to be supportive of the family who lost this wonderful young man. However, reaching out to the family may or may not be helpful to them. Some families long for community support; others choose to mourn privately. The key is to find someone very close with the family to let the community know how they wish others to respond to them.
4. Most kids want to help the family. Sending cards, notes, working on a memorial project is a way of not only helping the family who suffered such a loss, but a way of helping feel that we can make a difference for those who have known the young man.
5. Remember that younger kids, siblings, for example, have feelings about this as well. Parents should not forget to ask the younger ones in their family what they have heard, what concerns they have, what their fears are, in ways that children can understand the questions. Think developmentally.