Newton Parents, Community Leaders Seek Answers After Teen Suicides

NEWTON, Mass. — The first was last October: a promising senior who was fighting an eating disorder. The second suicide within two weeks was another young woman, a sophomore who struggled with depression. Then two days ago, the city of Newton buried its third teen, a boy, a junior who killed himself without any warning to his family, friends or teachers.

Nearly 400 parents attended Tuesday nights community forum on teen suicide at Newton South High School. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Nearly 400 parents attended Tuesday nights community forum on teen suicide at Newton South High School. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

“Who could ever imagine that we’d be back here again under similar circumstances?” asked Newton Public Schools Superintendent David Fleishman Tuesday night as he welcomed nearly 400 parents to another community forum on teen suicide.

Outside the auditorium at Newton South High School, two moms stopped to share stories about Roee Grutman, 17, who was buried Monday. The suicide of this outgoing student seems to have stunned everyone who knew him.

“We’re all worried about our kids, every parent I’ve spoken to tonight is worried about their kid,” said Barbara Pittel, whose children knew Grutman.

Faith Paul’s son had three classes with him.

“When my son transferred in middle school, Roee was the first person who made friends with him,” Paul recalled. “He was just awesome.”

Parents are worried, because “if [suicide] happened to Roee, it could happen to our kids,” Paul said.

“Nobody caught anything,” Pittel added. “No one knew that there was anything wrong.”

Much of what parents are learning boils down to this: suicide is complex. At Tuesday’s forum, parents heard that the vast majority of teenagers who die as a result of suicide have a diagnosed mental illness, and were reminded that mental illness is treatable if parents and children seek help.

Tips And Resources For Coping With Suicide In Your Community

These resources were provided by Riverside Trauma Center, which is working with Newton Public Schools.

Tip Sheets:

Suicide Prevention Hotlines:

Find more resources from Riverside Trauma Center.

What’s hard is striking the right balance between talking about suicide openly with teenagers, but not dwelling on it so that a child who is at risk gets stuck in those thoughts.

Dr. Susan Swick, chief of child psychiatry at Newton Wellesley Hospital, has been advising Newton schools and spoke to parents.

“With the outpouring of grief that follows and sustained attention to the individual, to the subject of suicide, that can resonate with a vulnerable person — not every person, but with a vulnerable person — in a way that would make an impulsive suicide attempt more likely,” Swick said.

After the deaths of Katie Stack, 15, and Karen Douglas, 18, last October, Newton brought in outside experts and spoke to high school teachers in an attempt to identify children who adults thought might be vulnerable. Swick says everyone can help children become less vulnerable by building up their resilience.

“This involves maintaining good social connections,” Swick said. “It’s about coping skills, it’s about self-care, it about getting good sleep, adequate exercise and nutrition. It’s about cultivating an ability to be flexible, to use humor, some creativity. There’s no one recipe for the things that you do, but it’s cultivating good behaviors that build resilience.”

And make sure, Swick added, that children have a network of adults who know them, talk to them and keep an eye on them.

Larry Berkowitz, who is also advising Newton schools through Riverside Trauma Center, urged adults to stop in these next few days and weeks and just listen to their children, “allowing them to talk with us about the loss that they’ve experienced. We have to tell them that we’re sorry they’ve lost a friend and a community member.”

When this latest period of grieving becomes less raw, Newton schools plan to resume a suicide prevention training program that began after the deaths of Douglas and Stack. Many parents say they didn’t know about this program and wondered why the schools weren’t doing anything in response to the two earlier suicides. In fact, student peer counselors, working with teachers at both of the city’s high schools, had planned to begin small group discussions that would reach every students the week after February school break. They will now be postponed.

Outside the schools, Newton Mayor Setti Warren says a new coalition of 50 different community groups has formed to promote emotional well-being for all ages.

“We’ll extend that beyond the Newton Public Schools into the community so we can reach families and young people outside our buildings,” Warren said.

Parents broke into small groups after Tuesday’s forum to talk about their individual experiences and fears. One mom wondered why her son was rearranging his room and reorganizing his books after Grutman’s death. Another said her son couldn’t stop crying. One mother wondered how to persuade her daughter to see a counselor. Many of the discussions came back to the question why — a question that can never be fully answered after a suicide.

“If I had all the answers we wouldn’t be speaking,” said Lila McCain, whose daughter Karen Douglas killed herself in October. McCain says it’s hard to know if anything could have prevented her daughter’s death.

“In Karen’s case, the love was there. She had an amazing team, amazing teachers, and she beat us to it,” McCain said. “And I’m going to just live with that pain.”

McCain isn’t just living with the pain. She and her other daughter have started an online campaign called Get Real to promote healthy body images for girls. It’s an example of the projects Newton residents hope will help the city heal and build a healthier future.

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  • Enzo

    They probably saw their parents making money playing CRISIS ACTORS and said that looks REALLY SCAMMY in liberal lay low land. What a role model.

  • Lawrence

    Oh, come on folks. Haven’t you heard? Aren’t you informed? It’s the antipsychotics these kids are taking that’s likely the reason. WHY is no one doing an investigation on this?

    It’s because the ones who prescribed these drugs don’t want to be sued. There are volumes of research demonstrating a causal relationship between anti-psychotic drugs that Drs are pushing on people, especially kids who don’t even need it and suicidal and homicidal thoughts.

    Drs are pushing it on everyone who wakes up in a bad mood, or who does not conform. They even force adults to take them against their will. See here this chilling account:
    http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/01/31/woman-held-in-psych-ward-testifies/5089405/

    Even Michael Moore, stated how an investigation into what role these dangerous narcotics may have had in the Columbine and other shootings. Most of the perpetrators of these school and mall shootings WERE on these dangerous drugs, but to date no one had the courage to at least question this or do an investigation.

    • Enzo

      Yes, and that is just another dimension of the sick liberal world “DRUG EM UP” with Ritalin. Look what they’ve done with our public schools turned them into little horror houses and the hypocrites PREACHING no marijuana and then PUMPING them full of Ritalin which is comparable to Cocaine as far as addiction.

    • Enzo

      Oh, and the other part of that is these kids are ADDICTED by the time they are done with high school. They can’t fill out a job appliation or pass a company drug test WITHOUT mentioning their addiction. The Army flat doesn’t want them. RUINED BY LIBERALS.

  • Julia Clement Genatossio

    This is the second article I have read on the suicides, yet still, no mention of what type of culture exists for young people in this affluent suburb. I can’t help but wonder what sort of family and social pressures young people may feel-the whole need to succeed or your nothing that goes on in affluent suburbs. What is the dynamic of failure within this community? Is WBUR so engulfed in it’s own community, so much so it can’t see the forest through the trees?

    • Lawrence

      Do some research and you will see that the drugs these kids are given can very likely be the cause.

  • sally l.

    I think it is important to remember that depression is a disease like any other and needs to be treated like any other disease (cancer, diabetes, etc) or the results can be death. To say that “What does he/she have to be depressed about at their age?”, is the very sort of ignorance that can lead to suicide. If your child had cancer, would you say “What is your problem? You have everything? Stop whining!”. With medication and counseling, many times the child can get to the bottom of it and lead a happier life.

    • Lawrence

      Yes, with a compassionate approach like counseling and actually listening to your child can be very helpful. Providing these potentially dangerous drugs can likely be the cause, just as it says on the label.

      If the female has an eating disorder, then no amount of these dangerous drugs will help her self-esteem and control issues.
      If you do the research, most of the school shooters and mall shootings, the guy at the army base all are associated with these dangerous drugs. Yes, even Columbine, which no other than Michael Moore who was awarded the Academy Award for his film that investigated that incident, says that an investigation into what role these drugs caused them to act is much needed.

  • wareinparis

    Nearly thirty years ago the Fitchburg and Leominster area experienced a spate of suicides in just under two years. All were young men or young boys, mostly from what seemed to be ordinary circumstances. There was one somewhat older, not quite 25 year old, young man. To my knowledge, no good answers were ever found for the question of why this happened.

    Here is what I do know. The young man who ended his life just before his 25th birthday would have been 59 this week. He took more than his own life. The only word I could ever find to describe his mother afterward was broken. His father lost a perennially positive attitude. He also had siblings whose lives are forever changed.

    We cannot emphasize strongly enough to our children that nothing is worth taking their own life. I do not know what the 25 year old thought was so bad he needed to kill himself. Whatever it was would surely have been a distant memory now. Instead, he is a distant memory and a statistic.