Parents, teachers and staff at East Hampton High School turned out on Wednesday to learn methods to help prevent tragedies like the suicide of David Hernandez Barros that shocked the school community in September 2012. About 40 people filed into the auditorium, where experts explained, in both English and Spanish, effective ways to communicate with children about death and thoughts of suicide as part of the high school’s attempt to grapple with what officials have called a lack of mental health services on the East End.
The “Night of Healing and Dialogue” addressed common community reactions, how to help grieving students after a suicide, how to identify common warning signs and what parents, friends and community members can to do to help prevent a suicide.
Experts also talked about resources available, like crisis hotlines and counseling and screening services, and explained the importance of being open and honest about suicide.
“I have had school districts say, ‘Don’t use the “S” word,’” said Melanie Puorto-Conte, the director of the state’s suicide prevention initiative. “Studies have shown that the incidence of putting thoughts of suicide in someone’s head is 1/100th of a percent. Talking about it actually opens the door so people feel free to talk about getting help and to not be caught in the stigma of suicide.”
Last week, East Hampton High School Principal Adam Fine expressed uncertainty about bringing such a seminar to the school because he knows that suicide is typically not something people want to talk about, but said he went forward with it because he said it is the correct thing to do, especially after having lost David.
“Something needs to change,” he said at the seminar. “I cannot lose a child again. I am reaching out to every member of the community.”
Earlier that day, the high school had a resource day where teachers and staff trained and spoke with mental health experts. Representatives from the school’s sending districts—Springs, Montauk and Amagansett—also joined in so that the dialogue could be open across East Hampton Town school communities.
Ms. Puorto-Conte applauded the school’s efforts and underlined just how big an impact suicide has.
“During the time it takes for you to enjoy a basketball game or a movie, another young person dies by suicide,” she said. “Every two hours and 15 minutes one person under 25 dies by suicide, and 14 percent of youths between age 10 and 24 have thoughts of suicide at some point in their lives. Of that, 6 percent will attempt it. Every year 4,140 people between ages 15 and 24 complete suicide. But for those who have been touched by suicide, they don’t want to hear about the statistics, because one death is one too many.”
She suggested asking teens about their concerns and paraphrasing what they say to help understand the world through their eyes. She said it is important to pick the right time to chat about the subject, preferably when the parent has a teen’s full attention, like driving in a car for example.
There are some things parents should avoid, like promising secrecy. Doing so could cause damage if medical help is needed at some point. Parents should not be afraid to ask children directly about the nature of their thoughts.
“This is not the time you don’t want to be direct,” Ms. Puorto-Conte said. “It is important not to overreact or underreact. We have to try to stay calm.”
In cases of emergencies, there is a wide variety of resources that are just a phone call away. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, for example, can be reached 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Members of the audience seemed to appreciate the school’s effort to reach out to the community. Amagansett resident Holly Thomas said that while she was disappointed at the small turnout, she was glad to find out there are many resources available.
“Kids now have so many obstacles and so many anxieties,” she said. “Social media perpetuates the problem.”
Pat Brabant, a Springs resident and father of four children who attend Springs School, said East Hampton High School is doing a “good job.”
“There is a lot of help but not a lot of information out there,” he said. “Kids won’t pick up brochures.”
That is why the school district wants to continue the dialogue with students and parents, according to Mr. Fine.
“Nobody’s going to turn anybody away at any time,” he said. “We have become more toward a mental health facility than we should be right now, but we can never turn down helping people.”
For more information about suicide prevention resources, visit preventsuicideli.org.