In DARIEN, around 300 members of the community partook in a Zoom call on Monday night aimed at recognizing and discussing indications of suicide and mental health challenges in children and teenagers.
The call was organized following the passing of Hayden Thorsen, a 16-year-old sophomore attending Darien High School.
On Monday, Superintendent of Schools Alan Addley conveyed in a statement that Thorsen’s demise was “an incredibly sorrowful loss.”
“The school has now suffered the loss of three students in the past two months. The anguish caused by the departure of these beautiful young lives is insufferable. It is devastating for the families, the school, and the town. Understandably, our school community is reeling from these tragic losses,” Addley wrote.
Back in March, the district mourned the passing of Matthew McEvoy, a 17-year-old. In April, 16-year-old Henry Farmer died due to medical complications.
Frank Bartolomeo, the senior clinical consultant for adolescent services at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, who was one of the leaders on the call, noted that in December, the U.S. Surgeon General emphasized the need for the country to prepare for youth mental health crises. Bartolomeo told CT Examiner that suicide cases among young individuals had been increasing, and the COVID pandemic had worsened the problem.
Bartolomeo further explained to CT Examiner that Darien had responded comprehensively to Thorsen’s death, including organizing the Zoom call on Monday night, facilitating a discussion at the Darien Depot, and making counselors available during the weekend.
In a letter to the community on Monday, High School Principal Ellen Dunn stated that over the weekend, the school had been in contact with local organizations such as Child Guidance of Southern Connecticut, Sasco River Center, and the State Department of Education. The school opened two hours late on Monday to allow teachers time to work with response teams and prepare for conversations with students about loss and grief. Throughout the day, students were brought in small groups to meet with counselors and support staff at the school.
Scott Newgass, an education consultant at the state Department of Education who assists districts with school crisis response, declined to share information about specific school districts but mentioned that in general, when the state is notified about a student’s suicide, they connect the district with its local mobile crisis center.
Newgass stated that the primary focus for a district should be on how to discuss the incident with students, especially those who were close to the deceased adolescent.
“Following a crisis like this, there is often great concern in the community. And of course, everyone wants to take action. However, the first thing we need to help districts understand is that impulsive reactions and large task forces should come later,” Newgass said.
Indicators of Warning
During the call, Bartolomeo mentioned that many of the signs of suicide were similar to those of depression, such as losing interest in school or activities, changes in eating or sleeping habits, social isolation, or a preoccupation with death. He stated that individuals with mental health disorders, as well as those with a family history of mental health issues, substance abuse, or suicide, are at a higher risk of suicide. In many cases, he said, adolescents who attempt suicide feel trapped and believe they have no other options.
“Suicide often signifies an attempt to escape from acute emotional pain,” Bartolomeo explained.
Bartolomeo told CT Examiner that adolescents experience grief differently. Some may remain unaffected, while others may experience varying levels of guilt. He added that the manifestation of grief in adolescents is visibly distinct from that of adults.
“A mentally healthy adult can withstand more intense grief for a longer period. However, adolescents have a different threshold for such experiences. Therefore, you may observe them grieving and then behaving playfully and goofily afterward. It can be perplexing for both the adolescents and those who are observing them,” he noted.
During the call, Chelsea McGee, the manager of clinical services at the Center for Hope, mentioned that children in Darien were not only coping with the multiple deaths at the high school but also the more widespread losses caused by the pandemic.
“Several factors contribute to the overwhelming feelings that some of your children may be experiencing,” McGee stated.
Bartolomeo advised parents to express curiosity about their child’s feelings and avoid making judgments, such as expressing surprise that a young person with “so much to live for” would take their own life.
“Making judgments can be counterproductive and hinder open conversations with children,” Bartolomeo cautioned.
Newgass pointed out that adults, including school staff, should ensure they are taking care of their own mental health.
“While all of us are concerned about the children, we must also recognize that adults within the family often face enormous stress. School staff who were close to the students also experience significant stress,” he mentioned.
Newgass also emphasized that districts like Darien, which find themselves grappling with a crisis towards the end of the school year, need to focus on preparing students for the summer, when they will no longer have the structure of regular school days. He said that some youth services boards offer strong support for students during the summer. Families can also directly contact mobile crisis centers for assistance in cases of mental health crises in both children and adults.
“In the initial days, the focus is naturally on addressing the shock, grief, and losses as best as possible,” Newgass explained. “But in the following weeks, efforts should be made to help students transition and build resilience since, in three or four weeks, these students will no longer have the usual support and structure associated with the school system.”