A coalition of community agencies, churches and the Schenectady City School District is working with two national experts to develop a strategy to prevent further suicides among students, officials said at a forum Thursday night.
Joe Gallagher of Northeast Parent and Child Society said the coalition came together Monday following the weekend suicide of a second student in 10 days and the third suicide since November in the Schenectady district.
“We will lay the groundwork for how we will proceed and we will pursue a strategy to prevent the untimely deaths of children. We want to make them feel safe and protected,” Gallagher said.
The state Office of Mental Health has brought in two national experts to assess the suicide patterns, to review rumors related to the suicides and to prepare a plan of response, Gallagher said. “The professionals are trying to sort out what happened and to get to the root of what happened,” he said. They were not identified.
Dr. Kevin Karpowicz, leading pediatrician at the Ellis Pediatric Health Center, called the suicides a “cluster,” with one triggering the next. “Clusters do happen. The trigger is the other person.”
Karpowicz said he would like to see the creation of a permanent community response team. The team would go into action immediately after a suicide. “That is how you stop a cluster,” he said.
One of the forum’s panelists said he spoke with approximately 35 Schenectady High School students earlier Thursday. Seventy-percent said they knew someone who was thinking of suicide or felt like committing suicide, and 100 percent said they did not know where to go for help.
The panelist said many of the students mentioned they were overwhelmed by living in poverty, coming from single-family homes, dealing with teen pregnancy and having sexually transmitted diseases.
Karpowicz said these factors can trigger suicide but the key factor is an overwhelming sadness.
Additional forums are planned next week for students of Schenectady High School and for parents and community members.
Thursday night’s forum drew approximately 100 people to the high school’s Black Box Theater, which holds 270.
Gallagher said the forum was a chance for people to “come together as a community and talk about what we as a community can do for ourselves and our children.” He said the deaths have stunned and scared the community, and “now it’s time to talk.”
A number of people did talk, and most relayed the same message: “Talk to and listen to your children.”
The Rev. Clarence Samuel Johns, of the Refreshing Spring Church of God in Schenectady, agrees. He officiated at the funeral of the girl who killed herself in November. The service drew 900 children, he said.
“One of the things is to talk about it,” Johns said. “They found out afterwards there were all kinds of signs, but they didn’t understand them or see them.”
Ballston spa workshop
Meanwhile in Ballston Spa, two psychologists spoke to about 35 people at a workshop on suicide prevention sponsored by The Prevention Council of Saratoga Springs.
Psychologists Lawrence Silverman and Rich DeMartino have each counseled hundreds of teenagers over the past 30 years, but they haven’t come up with a formula for predicting suicide.
Silverman works in the Shenendehowa School District and DeMartino in the Saratoga Springs City School District.
Silverman said he started his school counseling career in 1979 and, shortly after he started, there were two unrelated teen suicides within 24 hours.
One was a boy who was a star athlete getting good grades and the other was a girl who had recently quit after a troubled school career.
“I don’t think there was anyone in the high school who didn’t know one or the other of these young people,” he said.
Before beginning their program, Silverman and DeMartino asked participants to tell who they were and what they think of when they hear the word suicide.
Around the table, counseling service professionals, school administrators, teachers and concerned parents said they were frightened, confused and desperate for information. Most of the participants said they knew of at least one person in their personal or professional lives who had committed suicide.
One man said he had two friends who had killed themselves in unrelated incidents.
“One guy was always depressed and down and the other was what you would call a really happy-go-lucky guy,” he said. “I think we all felt more guilty about the seemingly happy guy because it was so unexpected.”
Several school counselors said they get nervous when children talk about thoughts of suicide. “I feel panicked,” one woman said. “I want to do something, but I’m unsure.”
Silverman said when anyone talks about suicide, it’s a call to action for those around them.
That action includes talking with parents, mental health professionals and doctors.
“In my experience, kids are conflicted when they say they’re thinking about killing themselves. If you take action, it can be a comfort for the kid.”
DeMartino said opening the topic up for discussion can start to defuse the situation. “It’s difficult to work with someone who talks about it all the time, but by saying you are worried and that you want to help, it can make a difference.”
Silverman said he understands Schenectady City School District officials’ reluctance to publicize three recent student suicides and three attempted suicides over the past four months.
“There is a fear that if you talk about it, you’re going to give someone the idea. That’s not likely to be the case,” he said. “In my experience, if I ask a teenager if they’re thinking about hurting themselves, I get pretty accurate information.”
DeMartino encouraged participants to access the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Web site, www.afsp.org, for details on the subject and available services.
According to statistics on the Web site, males are three times more likely to commit suicide than females and the highest rates are among those who are 45 to 54 years old or over the age of 75.
“White men over the age of 75 are the most at risk,” Silverman said.
When young people kill themselves, he said, adults feel a sense of responsibility, shock and grief that the life was cut short.
“Is it possible to predict someone will commit suicide? We shouldn’t attempt to predict. If someone talks about it, take action,” he said.