TRURO — A public forum on raising awareness of youth suicide and its causes and prevention will be held at the Truro Community Center from 6 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 16.
The event, open to all, has been organized by the Cape & Islands Suicide Prevention Coalition in response to the recent deaths of three young people on the Lower and Outer Cape. A panel of experts and survivors, moderated by clinical psychologist Maura Weir, will address a variety of issues and answer questions from the public. Staff members from Cape Cod health organizations and the local schools will participate.
The panel, Weir said on March 8, will include Brianne Smith, a licensed clinical social worker and community navigator with Outer Cape Health Services; Jessica Newell, a social worker and counselor at Nauset Regional Middle School; Rebecca Stanley, the director of emergency services and crisis stabilization for Bay Cove Human Services of Cape Cod; Meghan Robitaille, a clinical social worker who works in Barnstable; and Dr. Kim Mead-Walters, a family physician and co-founder of the nonprofit Sharing Kindness. Mead-Walters’s 16-year-old son, Jeremy, a junior at Nauset Regional High School, died by suicide in 2016.
Weir, the director of student wellness and counseling at Cape Cod Community College, moderated a similar panel and public forum on Feb. 17 in Harwich. At that event, she and other speakers addressed many of the misconceptions and false assumptions that surround the difficult subject of suicide.
“Talking about suicide with a young person does not put the idea in their head,” said Weir. “We have to talk to our young people.”
Dr. Christopher Bellonci, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, said in an interview last week that scientific knowledge about what causes so-called clusters of youth suicides is scant. Bellonci lives in Truro and is a leader in the field of children’s mental health best practices. Gauging the effects of reactions to a suicide on vulnerable young people is extraordinarily tricky, he said.
Bellonci said he generally agrees that talking about suicide doesn’t cause suicide.
“The exception,” he said, “is that, if young people see a lot of attention given to the person who died, does that create a perverse incentive? ‘Look at how people are rallying around the person who took their life.’ If there was bullying or rejection by friends, family, or society, is this a way to retaliate against them? Or the young person may think, ‘I’m feeling so awful that everyone around me would be better off if I were dead — look at all the support they are getting.’ ”
Instead of focusing on the person who has died, said Bellonci, discussions of suicide can offer an opportunity to think holistically about the kinds of stress that families, schools, and society put students under.
“If you feel that the young person’s suicide is an indicator of stress in your population and not an isolated event,” he said, “then it is incumbent upon the school to have a systemic response: universal screening, looking at academic expectations, Covid stressors, and substance abuse disorder, whose rate is high on the Outer Cape. Do you have enough of a mental health team?”
The immediate response may be to bring in grief counselors. It may be best, he added, to wait to hold a school assembly on wellness or on what to do when you are feeling vulnerable.
Bellonci noted that even young people who did not know the student who died can be profoundly affected by a suicide.
“You have other people who are touched by the loss because of their own family losses, or who are just feeling depressed,” he said. “Those are the ones we most worry about — the ones you want to make sure you’re checking in about, including direct questions about their safety.”
One of the subjects of discussion at the Harwich forum last month was the words that people use in talking about suicide and the unintentional pain they can cause.
“We don’t say that someone ‘committed suicide,’ ” said Weir. The word “committed” has negative connotations, she observed, because it is so commonly used in saying that someone “committed a crime” or “committed a sin.”
“We say that the person ‘died by suicide’ or ‘took his own life’ or even ‘killed himself,’ ” said Weir. “Otherwise, you are suggesting that the loved one did wrong, and the person feels bad enough as it is.”
She also cautioned against speaking of a “failed suicide attempt,” as if the desired outcome was death. “We say it was a ‘nonfatal suicide attempt,’ ” she said.
Mead-Walters said at the Harwich panel that one of the most painful experiences for family members after a suicide is that so many friends and acquaintances “turn away from you because they don’t know what to say.”
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.