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Hartford Forum Seeks to Bring Suicide Awareness Into Open

Hartford — When Lindsay Pierce was a student at Hartford High School, she knew that drug use was a problem among her peers and helped bring the topic to the forefront of school discussions, but she doesn’t remember suicide being an issue.

Now at 24, Pierce experiences depression herself, and she wants similarly to open up the sensitive issue of teen suicide for discussion at the high school.

“Suicide was never something we talked about when I was in high school, but now I feel it’s something we need to teach the kids today,” Pierce said last night. “The whole anxiety and depression, it’s not something that anyone has told them about.”

About 80 people gathered at Hartford High School for a community forum to discuss suicide, the warning signs, resources and how parents can help children grieve when someone they love takes their own life. The conversation was sparked last night by the high school and local mental health agencies after two local Hartford teenagers died last month by suicide.

On June 7, 14-year-old Ashley Ellen DeMond died by suicide, and eight days later, a 15-year-old Hartford boy took his life. Last night, Hartford worked to move forward.

“Tonight we’re going to talk about the elephant in the room and that’s adolescent suicide,” said Frank Silfies, a retired crisis leader from Health Care and Rehabilitation Services. “We need to have an open and honest discussion about suicide because it’s the third leading cause of death of adolescents in the United States.”

Silfies went through a Powerpoint presentation of the leading causes of suicide and its common warning signs. But last night’s forum was also an opportunity for families to ask questions, express grief, and show a little anger.

Kelly DeMond, the father of Ashley DeMond, stood up and asked if he could read a few letters that had been written to his daughter after she passed away. Holding green and pink pieces of folded paper, his hands shook. A woman sitting nearby stood up and offered to read the letters for him.

“Dear Ashley, I have been drowning in guilt. You were honestly a bright person and didn’t deserve this ending. Rest in peace, Ashley.”

Another wrote, “Dear Ashley, we weren’t exactly friends. I’m sorry if anything I ever said or did made you feel less than perfect. I know I wasn’t a bully to you, but I wasn’t a friend either.”

When the letters were finished being read, DeMond said, “I just want to say that I think this message does need to get out to our kids because it’s not getting out there, especially with the number of kids who are feeling guilt about what happened to Ashley.”

Another woman, Erica Aftowski, expressed frustration at the school district. She said this past year her son was a seventh grader and he was doing well in school at the beginning of the year, but soon his grades began to slip. She told the room that one night, her son confided he wanted to kill himself. The next morning, she took him to the emergency room at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

When it came to dealing with the school, Aftowski said she felt stuck. She spent months calling the school and writing letters, and never made any progress, and she eventually hired a lawyer to help her file the paperwork known as a 504 plan for students with disabilities to craft a responsive education strategy.

“I feel that the school last year was absolutely awful dealing with the issues,” Aftowski said during the meeting. “What if it’s a parent that isn’t as persistent as me.”

Scott Farnsworth, the director of K-12 guidance, addressed Aftowski directly during the meeting, expressing his apology.

“We often try our darndest to do the right thing, but sometimes trying our darndest isn’t enough,” Farnsworth said. “When I think about your seventh grader and that 504, clearly we need to look at the system. I hear you. I’m sorry.”

After the meeting, Aftowski said she’s dealt with anxiety and depression since she was in high school and she thinks the issues need to be talked about, especially in a school setting. Last night was a good step, she said, but the conversation needs to continue.

During Silfies’ presentation, he explained the different reasons why a person might take their own life. Gay and lesbian children are at a higher risk for suicide, he said. Substance abuse, social stress and feeling despair or hopelessness are all factors for suicide. And he added that it’s often hard for adults or other children to understand why a person would choose the irrevocable act of ending their own life.

“It doesn’t matter if it makes sense to you, the person looking in,” Silfies said. “The problem they’re facing isn’t that big of a deal to you. For a kid, the problem is real and it’s huge. You need to understand that what they’re feeling is real for them.”

Parents should look for signs of disinterest in favorite extracurricular activities, problems at work or losing interest in a job, substance abuse, behavioral issues and withdrawal from family and friends.

A lot of the signs of possible suicidal thoughts are masked as typical behaviors, Silfies said. But if a child has never shown one of these signs and then their behavior suddenly changes, that’s a signal that something may be wrong.

“You’re looking for changes,” Silfies said. ‘When you see changes happening, that’s when the antenna needs to come up. That’s when you need to pay attention.”

Gabrielle Lucke, a former Hartford School Board member, sat in the audience with her husband and high school age son. She also brought her middle school son, who chose to hang out with friends in a different room of the high school.

Lucke has known the pain of suicide personally after a high school boyfriend took his own life. And she talks about the issue with both of her boys.

“If we talk about it, then it won’t be as hidden or taboo,” Lucke said.

If friends show warning signs of wanting to hurt themselves, she said her sons know that they should tell someone.

“Is it better that your friend is mad at you instead of going to their funeral?” Lucke said. “Their parents will love you for it.”

Farnsworth and school administrators have met with 38 people from various local agencies since the death of the two Hartford teenagers. Last night was just a first step, Farnsworth said.

At the high school level, students will notice a change in their schedules this fall. Students will meet in a small group with an adviser from 7:45 to 8:10 a.m. Students will have the same adviser for all four years, and the idea is that the students and the teacher can become a support system for each. If a student begins to show sudden changes, hopefully someone in the small group will notice, Farnsworth said.

“What’s important to me is that this is sustainable. Whatever momentum we have needs to continue,” Farnsworth said. “How do we take it to the streets and involve other families?”

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

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