Special Report: How to combat teen suicide?

04/06/2017 6:00 AM |

A photo of John Anderson rests on the windowsill of his parents’ Riverhead home. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

Two poster boards covered with photos rest on the windowsill in the dining room of Dennis and Carmel Anderson’s Riverhead home. More posters are scattered throughout the house, on tables and the floor. The photos provide a glimpse into the life of their son, John. There are shots of the family in Ireland, John in his No. 63 Blue Waves football uniform and groups of friends dressed up before a school dance.

In one photo, John is pictured with a brace on his right arm and his left forearm in a sling, injuries from his final football season. His head tilted to the right, he still smiles wide.

In the kitchen, stacks of mail have piled up next to the table. Since the family announced a scholarship fund in memory of John, a high school senior who died by suicide March 5 at age 18, donations have flooded in, many from people the Andersons have never met. With each check comes an emotional note of sympathy. Some have even shared similar stories of a parent losing a child to suicide.

“It makes you realize you’re not alone,” Mr. Anderson said. “There’s so many other people out there. It’s just too many people out there that this has happened to.”

A wave of teenage suicides in the area — including two in the Shoreham-Wading River School District this school year — has intensified discussion of suicide risk, warning signs and how schools can help prevent future tragedies. In New York, suicide is the third leading cause of death among people between 15 and 24 years old, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. It’s the fourth leading cause of death among children between 10 and 14.

A 2015 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services surveyed 20,000 high school students and found that 17.7 percent had considered suicide and 8.6 percent had attempted it.

“I’m not sure that we have progressed a lot around the world on youth suicide prevention,” said Scott Poland, a psychologist and co-director at the suicide and violence prevention office at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. “In fact, sadly, the rates for young people may be at their highest in 30 years.”

Mr. Poland, a recognized pioneer in school suicide prevention, gave the keynote address last Thursday at a conference in Riverhead titled “Youth Suicide: Prevention, Intervention and Postvention.” Hosted by East End Hospice, the conference offered an opportunity for school administrators, social workers, guidance counselors and school board members from East End districts to better understand the role schools and communities play in suicide prevention.

Schools with suicide prevention programs in place experience fewer suicides and attempts, according to research from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. New York does not currently mandate prevention training in schools, Mr. Poland said. He stressed the importance of having suicide prevention task forces in schools, adding that they would be most effective when linked with resources in the community, including parents, law enforcement and survivor groups. Suicide, experts say, rarely occurs impulsively or without warning.

Scott Poland was the keynote speaker at a conference last week in Riverhead on teen suicide. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)

Mr. Poland recommended that schools conduct annual training for staff on warning signs and that school nurses, counselors and social workers receive more training on suicide assessment. It’s a mistake to think all psychologists receive that training, he said, because it is currently not required.

Andrea Monz, a social worker at Albert G. Prodell Middle School in the Shoreham-Wading River district, attended the conference and said it was helpful to be in the presence of other districts that have experienced similar losses.

“It’s hard for people in general to accept the fact that this has happened,” she said. “We don’t know many of the ‘whys’ but we can, like he said, help with prevention, help with the warning signs, follow protocol, make sure we’re calling parents and helping that student get the help that they need.”

Social worker Joshua Hendrickson said in an interview that his nonprofit works to support sustainable systems of care, primarily through education, health care and criminal justice. The co-founder and executive director of Project Presence, Mr. Hendrickson said his organization works with schools to design professional training for teachers on child development.

“When you put it in the context of child development and the context of suicide prevention, you want to look at it from both a risk factor and a protective factor perspective,” he said.

Risk factors include underlying mood disorders, substance abuse, access to lethal means and prior history of suicide attempt. Protective factors include coping ability, availability of mental health care and a school environment that encourages seeking help.

“Overall, I think there’s a better understanding of suicide prevention and a greater understanding of the risk factors and the protective factors and schools making more concerted efforts to organize their districts and systems to be able to better address these needs,” Mr. Hendrickson said.

Mr. Poland’s presentation outlined different cases in which warning signs were mishandled or school officials failed to notify parents promptly, if at all.

Parents will often ask, “How do I know it isn’t just typical teenage moodiness and irritability?” Mr. Poland said. His response is to ask them if the behavior has been persistent — having gone on for two weeks or more — and if it is pervasive, affecting all aspects of their child’s life. For example, has the child dropped out of activities that were previously enjoyable?

He said 20 percent of all adolescents are depressed at some point, but 80 percent never receive treatment.

“When suicide occurs, the most general thing I can say is this simple: It was very likely untreated mental illness or it was undertreated mental illness,” he said. “We all have to be advocates for the treatment being received.”

HIS FINAL DAYS

In an interview last week, Mr. Anderson recalled how his son had not been eating for a few weeks. A captain on the football team known by his friends as “Big Bear,” John had always been a big eater, fueling his body to play as a lineman, his father said. The family recognized he was eating less and losing weight. They attributed it to him slimming down after football season ended. While John had considered playing football in college — he’d recently decided to attend SUNY/Cortland — his father said it seemed unlikely he would pursue the game at the next level. John had sustained injuries to both arms during his senior season, but neither required any medication beyond ibuprofen, his father said.

John was never a drinker or someone to use drugs, Mr. Anderson said, nor had he ever been diagnosed with any form of depression. Ever since he got his license, he would pack as many friends as he could into his family’s old minivan to drive everyone around town. It didn’t matter to John that the minivan was 16 years old and had more than 200,000 miles on it. Even when his father offered to buy him a new car or give him his old Jeep, John insisted on the minivan.

When the minivan’s transmission blew, Mr. Anderson offered to restore it. He found a transmission in Colorado and had it shipped to New York. After being out of commission for close to a month, the minivan was ready to be picked up March 6. John died one day earlier.

On that Sunday morning, Mr. Anderson went into his son’s bedroom to wake him for church. John was a man of faith, his father said, and always made a point of attending church.

Having stayed up late with friends the night before, John told his dad he was too tired and would attend a later Mass. When they returned home, John was showering. He then left for a noon Mass at St. Isidore Church in Riverhead. The family typically attended St. John the Baptist in Wading River, but the schedule at St. Isidore was more convenient for him. When he returned home, he ate a smoked salmon sandwich and asked his dad if he could borrow the Jeep again.

“He said he was meeting friends,” Mr. Anderson said. “We thought that was unusual because he had just eaten. Usually when he meets his friends they go and eat somewhere.”

He left the house about 1:30 p.m. and was dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound about 90 minutes later, his father said.

A toxicology report revealed that John did not have any drugs or toxic substances in his system. The family waived an autopsy once the bloodwork came back clean.

How John got a gun remains the vexing question for the family. Mr. Anderson said some of John’s friends told him there were rumors that John had asked around about getting a gun. Police have been unable to track down the origin of the weapon, he said.

“That’s a red flag right there that has to be acted on immediately,” Mr. Anderson said of someone asking for a gun. “I don’t think he had that gun very long. That’s why it all happened very quickly, I think.”

A framed photo of Rob Pace at his parents Bob and Karen Pace’s home. Rob died in 2000. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

LASTING EFFECTS

A peer’s suicide can cause a ripple effect that leaves other youths susceptible to suicide for up to six years, Mr. Poland noted in his presentation. Risk factors for imitative behavior include having a close relationship with a victim, having mental health problems of their own or believing they contributed to a suicide by failing to recognize signs.

Mr. Poland advised that postvention should include a public response that minimizes sensationalism, avoids glorification and emphasizes that the victims had mental illness. He also stressed that resources should include the community at large and that schools should emphasize the availability of help, monitor social networking sites and strive to treat all deaths the same way to reduce stigma attached to suicide.

For the families of suicide victims, the wound never heals. Next week will mark 18 years since Bob and Karen Pace of Riverhead lost their son, Rob, to suicide.

Time, they said, only masks the pain.

“It’s always there,” Ms. Pace said. “I can cry at a moment’s notice. One time I read in a brochure, as a parent, it’s like a duck who was in an oil spill. They can clean it up so it can fly again, but it’s never right. It’s just never right. And that’s what you feel.”

The circumstances of their son’s death put the story in a public spotlight. Rob, a Riverhead High School senior in 2000, was arrested while on a class trip to Great Adventure in New Jersey for carrying a small amount of drugs in his backpack. School officials refused to bring him home. Before his parents could be contacted, he was released from the police station and set off on his own for home. Rob was eventually found by railroad tracks east of Bethpage. A detective with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority informed the Paces that their son had been found.

“As he got closer, I think it was just too overwhelming for him because I feel that he felt thrown away once he wasn’t allowed on the bus,” Ms. Pace recalled in an interview. “People need to know it’s not always the depressed. It’s not always the person that talks about it or whatever. It’s the overachiever who fails at something and doesn’t know how to handle it.”

A year later, thanks to lobbying from the Paces, the New York State Legislature approved a bill making school districts accountable for bringing students home from school trips.

“More times than not, from what I hear, there’s less early warning, less crying out and more bottling up,” Mr. Pace said. “And I don’t think anybody’s got the answer to that. They say, ‘Oh, you should teach boys to be more open’ and whatnot. But our kid couldn’t have been more open.”

To begin the grieving process, the Paces attended survivor of suicide groups in Massapequa and Setauket. Spending time with other parents who understood the grief they felt helped, they said.

When they first went to a meeting, they met parents who were farther along in the grieving process.

“You’re almost angry for what seemed like their normalcy,” Mr. Pace recalled. “And we didn’t feel normal.”

As time passed, they soon found themselves in the position of helping to counsel other parents who were suffering fresh wounds. Ms. Pace said she always wished she’d been strong enough to start a local support group on the East End.

Rebecca Hoermann, a Shoreham-Wading River High School sophomore, plays the ukulele Monday night at a program run by the North Shore Youth Council as a space for kids to connect. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

FINDING SUPPORT

Following the death of a 14-year-old Shoreham-Wading River student late last year, Remy’s Fund was established and the money raised was donated to the North Shore Youth Council, a Rocky Point organization that offers youth and family services. As a way to help bring young kids together, the council established a ukulele group that meets Monday nights at the North Shore Public Library. It’s one step in an effort to create programs to help young people connect and feel more fulfilled in their lives.

“Our kids need environments where they can go and they can feel proud of their own ideas and be supported in exploring what they’re interested in,” said Grace McCarthy of Shoreham, Remy’s mother.

Mr. Anderson said he’s found support through Joe’s Project, an organization that’s part of the Family Service League’s community crisis action team. Through a team of 12 social workers, Joe’s Project offers suicide-specific support to victims’ families, schools and businesses to help them cope after a tragedy.

“It’s not like other deaths, so people need a lot of unique support,” said division director Robyn Berger-Gaston.

Since Joe’s Project was formed about a decade ago, the group has responded to more than 200 suicides, representing every town in Suffolk County, Ms. Berger-Gaston said.

Every month a newly formed group called “Chat & Chill” meets at the Bridgehampton Community Center. It’s for people between 18 and 30 years old who have been affected by sudden loss, whether it be due to suicide, overdose or other means. The group’s next meeting is Monday, April 17, at 6 p.m. Ms. Berger-Gaston said.

‘Nothing worse’

Mr. Anderson served in the Army during Vietnam and spent 25 years as a firefighter with the FDNY. On Sept. 11, seven of his colleagues from Ladder Company 2 in Manhattan were killed. Mr. Anderson happened to be off that day. A year later, after helping the company rebuild, he retired.

Despite all those experiences, nothing could prepare him for what he felt last month.

“There’s nothing worse that could happen to a man,” he said. “Losing a son by his own hand. Makes you question what’s left.”

On Friday, Mr. Anderson boarded a plane to meet his wife in Ireland, where they planned a memorial in John’s memory with her family, who couldn’t make it to the New York services. Their daughter, Maria, has returned to school at SUNY/Geneseo. Mr. Anderson said it’s been best for her to have the support of her friends at school.

It’s their daughter who keeps Dennis and Carmel Anderson going.

“That’s our light in the world now,” he said. “We need to be there for her. I can’t give up now.”

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With Krysten Massa

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