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Hartford Seeks Healing After Suicides

Hartford — After the suicides of two local teenagers, the Hartford community is grasping with how to cope with the loss of two young people, as well as how to open a dialogue about warning signs and suicide prevention.

Ashley Ellen DeMond, 14 of Hartford, died June 7. Her family has openly expressed that DeMond died by suicide and her obituary said she “is now free from her long struggle with emotional issues.” A 15-year-old boy also died by suicide in Hartford last Saturday, said Hartford Deputy Chief Brad Vail.

This is the third suicide in Hartford this month, after a Massachusetts man died in a fall at the Quechee Gorge.

In the last few days, Hartford High School has opened its doors to community members for an informal gathering and the Hartford Police Department addressed the issue on its Facebook page.

“Suicide is a touchy subject and there are people who may be feeling ashamed that it happened to someone in their family,” Vail said in an interview. “But if people stick their heads in the sand and don’t deal with it, it’s not for the greater good. We need to have an open dialogue about it and there shouldn’t be any feeling of shame from a family.”

Experts say it is important to take the warning signs — feeling hopeless, comments about hurting oneself, increased use of alcohol or drugs — seriously to get help for the person at risk. And in the aftermath it is beneficial to acknowledge the tragedy with grieving family members rather than to pretend it didn’t happen.

Parents of both families chose not to comment for this story.

While it’s important to support the two families who are dealing with these deaths, Vail said it’s also important to ensure that a path is created to move forward so that people at risk can receive help. He said the police department, as well as school counselors and local mental health organizations will be working to craft a plan for how the community can combat suicide amoung youth.

Scott Farnsworth, director of K-12 guidance and counseling services for the Hartford School District, said the district has been working continuously during the past several days to support families and the community.

Farnsworth met with members of 12 to 15 local agencies yesterday, including the Hartford Police Department. He said there will be a collaboration with The Junction teen center and the local Recreation Department to help offer resource activities for teenagers. Farnsworth said he and others are working to support families who may not have known the two teenagers who died, but are trying to learn about suicide warning signs and how they can help youth in the area.

“This will be weeks and months as a community as we continue to heal from this,” Farnsworth said. “We want to instill hope and healing in our message.”

Ann Duckless, community educator and prevention specialist with the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Concord, said after a suicide occurs in a community, people are at an increased risk.

“The very issue in the community brings it to the forefront and you don’t know what it can do to their psyche,” Duckless said.

It’s important to validate grief and loss, Duckless said, and understand that it’s part of the healing process. While family members will obviously focus on the loved one that they have lost, it’s important to turn the community’s focus to the grieving individuals, not the person who has died, Duckless said.

“It’s not focusing on what has happened, it’s focusing on what can we do to calm the fears and promote healing in our community,” Duckless said. “When you focus on the death, you don’t help the community heal.”

Instead, communities should shift the focus to warning signs, Duckless said.

She pointed out that some of the major warning signs include threatening to hurt or kill oneself; talking or writing about death or suicide; feeling rage or uncontrollable anger; increasing alcohol or drug use; not being able to sleep; withdrawing from friends or family; acting reckless; feeling hopeless, and dramatic mood changes, among others.

If family or friends notice someone exhibiting these warning signs, Duckless said the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is also available at 1-800-273-TALK(8255). Local resources are also available, such as West Central Behavioral Health, which has a 24 hour emergency hotline at 1-800-564-2578. Headrest also has a teen line at 1-800-639-6095, to name a few.

JoEllen Tarallo-Falk, executive director for the Center for Health and Learning in Brattleboro, said in light of a suicide, it’s normal for people who didn’t know the victim to feel the loss.

“I think it sends a ripple effect of grief and loss,” Tarallo-Falk said. “I think it’s a rallying point to ensure that the emotional and mental health needs of the family and the friends and extended network of the family who are affected are supported.”

Tarallo-Falk encouraged people to talk about suicide and said it’s OK to ask someone if they are thinking about suicide. If the answer is yes, Tarallo-Falk said people can respond by saying, “I’m very concerned about you and I’m going to stay with you until we can find you some help.” People can also broach the topic by asking, “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” If someone is suicidal, don’t leave him or her alone.

Michael Whitman of Lyme lost his 23-year-old son, Breck, to suicide in 1994, and since then he has compiled songs about grief and loss and he sometimes sends CDs to local families after they’ve lost a loved one.

He’s also a part of the Upper Valley Survivors of Suicide Loss Support Group. The group is for anyone who has lost someone to suicide. Whitman said that he asks that people interested in attending the support group contact him or another coordinator before just showing up. Whitman said there’s a “gentle screening” process because often people are not ready to attend a support group right after a death.

And Whitman stressed that it’s a support group, not group therapy. Whitman encourages people to share their own experience, but the members aren’t qualified to give advice.

When Whitman’s son died in 1994, he said people didn’t always know how to approach him. The worst thing for Whitman was when acquaintances pretended the death didn’t happen or didn’t mention it. For people who don’t know how to bring up the topic, Whitman suggested simply saying, “I don’t know what to say.”

People are often afraid to use the victim’s name, but Whitman said it’s fine to broach the topic.

“People often say they didn’t want to bring it up,” Whitman said. “Folks, we’re already upset. It’s on our mind 24/7 and if somebody doesn’t bring it up, that’s the insult.”

Whitman suggested that friends can say “I’m terribly sorry” or “I’m so sorry to hear about your loss.” The family members will then indicate whether they want to talk about the death.

But there are some comments that can make the situation worse, Whitman said, such as “I guess God decided to take him or her back” or “They’re in a better place” or “I know what you’re going through, my dog died recently.”

“Try to imagine how you would react,” Whitman said. “Common sense goes a good distance.”

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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