For three months, Schenectady High School officials kept quiet the suicide deaths of two students and attempted suicides by two others. But when a third killed herself this weekend — and another tried but was saved — the school said silence had become more dangerous than publicity.
Just days after telling a reporter that any discussion of the recent suicides would lead to more children killing themselves, the school district suddenly reversed itself Tuesday and sent home a letter to parents, baring all.
In it, they implored parents to watch for signs of depression in their teenagers and seek help immediately if any symptoms of depression surfaced.
“We’re trying to get the information out there to get these kids help,” Superintendent Eric Ely said. “It’s a scary proposition. You don’t want to publicize these things because they can and do lead to copycats and clusters. In a school district neighboring my own in my past, I’ve seen eight successful suicides in one year. I’ve seen large clusters.”
He said the school first tried to head off suicides by offering grief counselors after the first girl killed herself on Nov. 25.
Since then, five of her friends have tried to kill themselves too, and two have succeeded. After the third girl died this weekend, Ely set up a suicide prevention task force and restarted the Waveriders Grief/Bereavement Group.
The mother of one suicide victim also called a community meeting at her church, where mental health professionals said Tuesday they had been long trying to persuade the high school to let them openly publicize their services to the students. Generally outside counselors are invited into the school immediately after a tragedy, such as the recent deaths, but do not run programs for the entire student body.
Dr. Kevin Karpowicz, leading pediatrician at the Ellis Pediatric Health Center, also weighed in, saying the city schools and local pediatricians must screen all children for depression.
“We need a major screening effort. I consider two suicides an epidemic,” he said, adding that it must be coupled by an increase in mental health services in Schenectady.
“There’s very few child psychologists available,” he said.
He joined Ely in saying the silence over suicide must end.
“We need to increase awareness,” he said. “Many kids have depression. There’s an increase in depression during adolescence. It is not always noticed and treated.”
Karpowicz agreed that even discussing suicide will encourage more children to try it, but said that in this case, local teens already know all about the recent suicides.
“More people think about it the more it happens. Suicides beget suicides,” he said.
That’s why this must become public, he added: “We need a coordinated response.”
Judy Atchinson, who runs a local arts program for children and knew the first victim, also called for public discussion. “It’s time. We need to get it out of the closet,” she said.
But Lynn Rafalik, city schools director of pupil personnel services, said publicity would just make things worse.
She urged parents to watch their children for any signs of suicidal thoughts, particularly any grief for the teens who died. Parents can receive free counseling at the high school as well as advice on how to get their children to talk.
“Families need to talk, talk, talk,” Rafalik said. “It’s really tough work to uncover a teenager’s feelings. You just have to continually check in. You really have to constantly work at it. Kids do eventually reach out.”
In the recent suicides, victims did make their feelings public, but not to adults. Instead, they posted their deep grief over earlier victims on the Web site MySpace. One victim also left a suicide note there.
The messages are deeply disturbing, revealing a seemingly insurmountable level of grief. One girl wrote that three months after her friend’s death, she cried for three hours after hearing a song that her friend enjoyed.
Another wrote that “no one” knew what to do with their lives now that three of their friends were gone.
A girl who killed herself wrote three days before her death that she had been trying to smoke and drink to assuage her pain but nothing helped. She ended one post to a dead friend with the foreboding words, “I’ll see u sooon.”