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Newton parents, leaders look for answers after suicides

Specialists stress value of community, awareness in prevention

Lila McCain and Brian Douglas, parents of suicide victim Karen Douglas, attended the community meeting about teen suicide Tuesday night.

Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

Lila McCain and Brian Douglas, parents of suicide victim Karen Douglas, attended the community meeting about teen suicide Tuesday night.

NEWTON — Parents packed the Newton South High School auditorium Tuesday night looking for answers to why three teenagers in their city have killed themselves since October, and what they heard was that there are no answers.

What there is, however, is a city redoubling its efforts to make sure vulnerable young people get the help they need, and that every person in the community understands that services are available.

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“This community has been dealt a huge blow, we all feel it in our households with our children,” Mayor Setti Warren told an overflow crowd.

“We are going to make sure we attribute the appropriate resources to deal with this,” he said. “If you, or someone you know needs to talk to someone, there is someone to call, no one is alone.”

The gathering, led by Warren, School Superintendent David Fleishman, and mental health professionals, came just four months after another forum held in the aftermath of the suicides of Newton North senior Karen Douglas, 18, and Newton South sophomore Katie Stack, 15, who died within two weeks of each other in October.

This time it was the death of Newton South junior Roee Grutman, 17, that again brought a community together to try to make sense of the inexplicable.

Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

Newton Mayor Setti Warren spoke at the meeting as school superintendant David Fleishman listened.

“What I say, and I want to repeat, is that suicide is not contagious. It feels contagious, but it is not,” said Dr. Susan Swick, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Newton-Wellesley Hospital.

‘There is someone to call, no one is alone.’

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Swick said that suicides of young people often happen in a series, but that it is “not catchy, this is not the flu. One suicide doesn’t plant the idea in some other kid’s head and create a domino effect.”

But, she said, when there is sustained attention to the person who has died, it can resonate with a young person who is most vulnerable, and who has little impulse control.

“So what can we do, we can’t stop the grief, we can’t stop talking. What we can do is spend the time and energy identifying vulnerable kids,” she said.

She said there are two things everyone can do to help.

First, she said, stay connected with someone who you feel may be feeling down, or is having problems. “That doesn’t mean hitting them with text messages 24 hours a day,” she said. “But it means you are tuned in to not only where they are, but where they’re at.”

The second thing is, “never, never worry alone.”

Swick told parents to stress to their children that if they hear something from a friend that is concerning, they need to share it with an adult.

“That’s not a betrayal,” she said.

For many of the parents who attended the community forum, there was a feeling that they needed to attend and be a part of the healing process.

“It’s been such a tough year.” said Kathleen Olesky, the mother of a Newton South senior. “I don’t think anybody has the answers, but you feel like you have to be here with other people.”

Theresa St. John-Siegel and two friends expressed the same feelings, saying that while they didn’t expect to hear any real answers to why this was happening, they wanted to make sure they were covering all the bases.

Larry Berkowitz, director of Riverside Trauma Center, who has been working in the schools and with the city since last fall, said the city is doing all the right things.

Working groups have been meeting, additional counseling services have been added to the schools, and a community dialogue has begun.

He said the city’s message is sound. “No problem is too big,” he said. “The tragedy is that they didn’t know there were ways to deal with that intense pain,” he said of the students who took their lives.

Warren said that for anyone who feels they need help, a 24-hour helpline is available through the Riverside Emergency Services at 800-529-5077.

“We heard so much about how Roee was so available to his friends in their time of need,” said Fleishman. “In Roee’s memory, and in the memory of Karen and Katie, let’s do all we can to support our young people.”

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.
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