HARWICH — “All schools should have suicide prevention protocols,” Maura Weir told a roomful of about 50 people at a public forum on suicide at the Brooks Free Library on Feb. 17. “Some schools are doing it. Some are not.”
The director of student wellness and counseling at Cape Cod Community College, Weir is a member of the Cape & Islands Suicide Prevention Coalition, which sponsored the forum in the wake of the recent suicides of two Harwich youths.
A third recent suicide, of a student at Nauset Regional High School in Eastham, has spurred mental health professionals and educators to propose a similar public forum at the Truro Community Center. That forum has been tentatively scheduled for 6 p.m. on Wednesday, March 16. Additional details will be published in the March 10 edition of the Independent.
Nauset High Principal Chris Ellsasser expressed strong support this week for more public discussion of the issue. He described a difficult set of conflicting priorities in attempting to guide the school community towards healing and safety in the aftermath of a beloved student’s death by suicide.
“We walked a fine line between wanting to engage the community in education and respecting the wishes of the family,” said Ellsasser. “I established that care for the family was the priority. There is still such a stigma associated with suicide.”
The principal noted that some myths about suicide education remain strongly entrenched. One of those is that talking about suicide with young people will trigger suicide ideation in them.
“We know that is not the case,” said Ellsasser.
His point was confirmed by Weir. “Talking about suicide with a young person does not put the idea in their head,” she said at last week’s Harwich forum. “We have to talk to our young people. Fifteen million people in the U.S. report suicide ideation every year; the number who die is about 48,000. Most suicides are planned. They are not impulsive acts. And not all who die have been diagnosed with mental health problems. We want you to talk about suicide with your loved ones who may be thinking of doing it. We want them to get help.”
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 24, and the rate of youth suicide has been increasing every year since 2007. The challenges that children and teenagers normally face have been made worse by isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Dr. Laura Kester of the University of California, Davis.
Barnstable County’s suicide rate was higher than the statewide average in every year from 2015 through 2019, the last year for which statistics are available. In 2018, the county’s rate was nearly twice that of the state as a whole.
Seventeen suicides of people ages 15 to 24 were officially recorded on the Cape and Islands during the most recent five-year period for which data are available. But Weir pointed out that suicides are often recorded simply as accidental deaths.
Weir said she had worked hard during a previous cluster of suicides on the Cape to get prevention programs into the schools.
“In 2009 and 2010, we had about 10 young people die by suicide,” she said. “I was the suicide prevention manager, and we knocked on the door of every high school on the Cape. There was a lot of resistance from the schools. They didn’t want to look bad. And there was no time for it in the curriculum.”
With great effort, Weir said, suicide education was adopted in Mashpee, Bourne, Barnstable, Falmouth, and Sandwich, and at Cape Cod Tech, Falmouth Academy, Pope John Paul II, Sturgis, and other high schools. “It took us three years to get it accepted,” she said. “We wrote prevention protocols for the schools and gave them intervention and postvention programs.”
As a longtime advocate of suicide education and prevention — her doctoral dissertation was on youth suicide prevention — Weir believes it is essential that teachers and parents learn to watch for warning signs and clues that a young person is considering self-harm. Often the clues are indirect.
“There’s so much to learn about this,” she said, “so much work to be done — and people don’t realize it.”
Ellsasser acknowledged that there had been no schoolwide discussion of suicide at Nauset, either with the faculty or with students. He said that the nonprofit Sharing Kindness had offered “to bring in an individual who provides grief yoga, and that was made available to the faculty. I had a handful of teachers sign up, but in the end people didn’t take advantage of it. Sharing Kindness said people who are ready will come; if they’re not ready, they won’t come.”
The principal said he was looking for a time in the spring to show a movie about suicide as a community service. “Hopefully, we will have one or two speakers there, and our guidance counselors there,” he said.
“We’re looking at bringing suicide education more to the forefront of our curriculum,” Ellsasser added. “What we don’t want to do is have the conversation only in a crisis.”
Extensive information and resources are available from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s website, afsp.org. Anyone in crisis should call 800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741.