Only a sustained community effort from schools, law enforcement, clergy, parents and students will prevent any future suicides of young people.
That was the message of a forum Tuesday evening featuring Robert Macy of Harvard, executive director and founder of the Boston Center for Trauma Psychology. About 250 people attended the two-hour discussion at Mont Pleasant Middle School in response to four suicides of Schenectady High School students in the past five months.
“There’s no such thing as a suicide school. There’s no such thing as a suicide town,” Macy said, adding that researchers know how to identify suicide clusters but do not know how they start.
“It doesn’t care how rich you are, how poor you are, where you live … which makes it hard for a preventionist to do prevention,” he said.
Macy spent Monday and Tuesday at the high school talking to students, who he said are anxious and have problems at home that are not being addressed.
He referred to some of the drama at the school, saying that different groups of people have said hurtful things and the situation has escalated.
He said in general students in suicide clusters do not know each other. However, teenagers tend to gravitate to their peers. “They share loss, they share grieving.”
He said children kill themselves because they become so isolated that they think the world would be a better place without them.
Macy said in 95 percent of suicide attempts or completions, the person has a mental illness at the time. These illnesses are treatable with therapy and medicine.
Also, 50 percent of suicides result in death on the first attempt. “If you even start thinking about it, then you should talk to somebody,” he said to the students in the audience.
The goal is for the children to get the treatment that they need so they can get back into the community.
Macy said the best parents can do is provide an environment where their children can share anything on their mind.
“They may tell you stuff that hurts. They may tell you stuff that you can’t believe you’re hearing. But if not you, who?”
He said there are also gaps in the community that need to be filled — including more police presence on Hamilton Hill and more community service agencies. He also faulted society at large because so many households just have a single parent, with the number of black men being disproportionately incarcerated compared to whites for similar crimes.
Macy said the different social service agencies and clergy have to put aside their differences and territorialism and focus on the children.
“How dare us if we’re fighting in front of you. We’re supposed to be peaceful and kind and united.”
Superintendent Eric Ely said Macy would work with the district on some short- and long-term suicide prevention plans. And parents need to step up their role and listen to their kids, Ely said.
“The adults in the community need to embrace the children,” Ely said.
Nikia Pittman said she believes that one of the issues is that there are a lot of young mothers in their 30s who have high school age children and are still growing up themselves.
Parent Gail McRae said it has to be a long-term commitment.
“These are our babies. They need us and if we decide to get involved, which we should, we have got to stay involved.”
Macy’s observations seem to be shared by other residents.
Resident William Morgan said earlier in the day that students need more things to do. In Hamilton Hill, there is the Hamilton Hill Art Center and the Carver Community Center, but there is such a large youth population.
Larissa Oliver, a 16-year-old student at the Career Center at Steinmetz, said earlier in the day she believes that students do not have a lot of resources to turn to for support. These families do not have fathers and the mother may not be an good parent.
“They holler and scream at them in public to show they have authority. If you had at least one decent role model, it wouldn’t be an issue.”
She said she also believes some girls are too into making sure they have the latest hair and fashions and have a boyfriend.
Macy will be back at the end of April to train about 200 people in “psychological first aid” that can help respond and look for symptoms of suicidal thoughts.
Macy said he could not tell how long this cluster would last.
“Clusters have a life cycle of their own. I can tell you we can slow it down and eventually stop it,” he said.
Macy said it is going to be one step at a time. “We’re going to war against death. We can’t stop.”