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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 12, 2009

Town talks about suicide

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — The recent suicide of a Guilderland High School student led to a town hall forum on Tuesday aimed at prevention.

Many of those in the packed hall — about 150 attended — knew Andrea Guido, a vibrant 16-year-old who took her own life on Oct. 8.

One of her friends, Hannah Palmeri, recalled, after the forum, how happy Andrea had been at the game before homecoming as she planned a sleepover at Palmeri’s home. “She was the happiest person,” said Palmeri. She couldn’t believe it when her death was announced at school.

“The school was really good about it,” Palmeri went on. “They had a group of counselors right away.”

Palmeri described herself as being in a state of shock at first. After the funeral, Palmeri said, she had what felt like a nervous breakdown. She got help through Families Together.

“I’m glad I got to hear this,” Palmeri said about Tuesday’s forum, which she attended along with her parents. “I do see some of the signs…I think I’d do something about it,” she said, stating that she would talk to her mother.

When she got home, her mother said, Hannah Palmeri went out to a tree house in their yard with Andrea’s picture and sat there in the dark.

“Like they said at the forum, you have to grab the moment,” her mother said.

Albany County plans to set up a screening process, beginning at Guilderland, which uses questionnaires and interviews to determine if a teenager may be at risk for depression, suicide, or other mental health problems.

Melanie Puorto, the director of the Suicide Prevention Initiative for the state’s Office of Mental Health, pointed to literature that says more than 90 percent of the youth who kill themselves suffer from a diagnosable and treatable mental illness at the time of their death. She will be in charge of training those who conduct the interviews.

The TeenScreen Schools and Communities program that will be used at Guilderland is voluntary and requires parental consent. Parents of those found to be at possible risk are notified right away and provided with a list of community resources.

The program in Albany County will start in Guilderland with “the deceased child’s network of friends,” Moira Manning told The Enterprise. She is the director of Children’s Mental Health Services for Albany County and acted as facilitator for Tuesday’s forum. “It’s just like going to the doctor for a checkup,” she said.

Manning told the gathering during the forum, “We immunize children when they go to school…Why not mental-health analyses?”

Manning concluded, “We need to break the stigma. We need to open dialogue.”

Tuesday night’s dialogue was spurred by the school district.  Superintendent John McGuire wrote home to parents on Nov. 3, “The past few weeks have been extraordinarily difficult for many of our students, families, and staff members, as we all try to cope with this tragedy….Our school crisis team has met to discuss some serious and lingering issues that may have emanated from this event, including issues of depression, anxiety, and students expressing suicidal thoughts.”

Alluding to the cluster of teen suicides in Schenectady, McGuire said it was particularly important “to recognize and address a phenomenon known as suicide contagion, in which one person’s suicide may lead to other suicides or suicide attempts.”

Educators are not experts in suicide, McGuire told The Enterprise, and so they “reached out to people who had expertise.” In addition to Manning and Puorto, Tuesday night’s panel included Andrea Kollar, director of Children and Adolescent Outpatient Services for the Capital District Psychiatric Center; Jill Ordonez, director of United Way’s 2-1-1 and Samaritan’s Hotline; and Marianne Reid, board chair of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

A long-time educator, McGuire said he had never before been involved in such a forum. This is the first suicide at Guilderland in the two years he has been superintendent, he said. The last student suicide at Guilderland was in March of 2007.

The large turnout showed that the forum “struck a chord in the community,” said McGuire, and filled a need. Mental health problems, he said, used to be “a dark secret.”

“You didn’t talk about mental illness, or depression,” said McGuire, “Now, we’re trying to deal with it more openly.”

“A permanent solution to a temporary problem”

Albany County Executive Michael Breslin opened the forum, which was sponsored by the county’s Department for Children, Youth, and Families.

“We are keeping track of what goes on tonight…to tell other school districts and communities,” said Breslin. “We need to identify situations that create risk…Together, we can do so much more than we can by ourselves.”

“Even as we grieve the loss of one youngster, we have the urge to come together to protect our children and prevent further tragedy,” McGuire told the crowd.

“This is a community problem,” said Manning, stressing the variety of local resources that can offer help.

Puorto spoke after the introductory remarks with a practiced PowerPoint presentation on suicide prevention.

“Suicide can happen to anyone at any time; it’s a perfect storm,” she began.

Puorto said that 8.2 million Americans have thoughts of suicide and 32,000 complete suicides each year. Annually, 8,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 24 kill themselves, with 1,700 of them in New York State.

Puorto went over warning signs that followed the acronym FACTS:

—         Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness or of frustration and anger;

—         Actions, ranging from reckless behavior to withdrawal;

—         Changes in behavior or attitude;

—         Threats such as, “If this doesn’t work out, I’m going to kill myself” or, “I’m going to escape this”; and

—         Situations that cause stress such as perceived trouble with the law or in school. “They might not be as egregious as they think they are,” said Puorto.

Puorto also had specific advice for parents. She advised asking teens directly about their concerns and listening to the answers, paraphrasing back what is heard.

Then, a parent should offer help and follow through, she said.

Puorto also advised being specific about concerns and asking teachers and friends about the child. Finally, she said, parents should ask directly about suicide if they suspect it is on their child’s mind.

“If you take home one thing,” she said of the forum, it should be this: “You will not plant the idea of suicide in someone’s head.”

She also suggested locking up guns and medication if someone is seeking a means to kill herself or himself and not leaving that person alone.

If parents have concerns that their child is suicidal, they should act immediately, Puorto said. “Do not wait,” she stressed, noting local hospitals are equipped to help. (The school district’s website — www.guilderlandschools.org — lists a dozen places where help is available.)

“Do not promise secrecy,” Puorto stressed. “You have to help somebody get help…Keeping secrets can cause someone to lose their life.”

Puorto also had advice on what to do when a teen’s friend dies of suicide. After parents deal with their own shock, their child’s grief is the first priority. Texting and social network sites, she said, can be powerful sources of both positive and negative information.

She advised emphasizing the thinness of the line between dangerous and deadly behaviors and recommended asking, “Who would you turn to for help?” Parents shouldn’t be upset if it is someone beside themselves, she said.

Teens need to understand, Puorto said, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

“We have to be strong advocates”

Andrea Kollar, with the CDPC, said that both the Capital District Psychiatric Center in Albany and Ellis Hospital in Schenectady have crisis emergency rooms. “It’s going to be busy; you’re going to wait,” she warned.

Parsons has a child and adolescent mobile team that serves Albany, Schenectady, and Rensselaer counties, which can reach out to homes or schools, she said.

Kollar suggested parents call their insurance companies and ask, if their child had a problem, which programs and places would be covered.

CDPC, as a public agency, can serve patients without coverage, Kollar said, which she called liberating. “Not every agency has that ability,” she said.

 “We will come up with a treatment plan with you,” Kollar said, noting that CDPC “has some capacity to see kids in the Hilltowns” since it is “a bit of a trek” for families to get from the Hilltowns to the city.

Late in the session, as panelists answered questions that audience members had written, Kollar addressed the issue of insurance again. She said, despite progress with Timothy’s Law, health insurance often doesn’t cover treatment for mental-health problems.

Timothy’s law is named after Timothy O’Clair, a 12-year-old who killed himself in 2001. After his death, his family crusaded to change New York State laws relating to the provision of mental health and substance abuse services in private insurance plans. Timothy’s Law prevents discrimination by prohibiting insurance companies from limiting coverge for mental illness, but does no cover substance abuse disorders.

“We have to be strong advocates for adequate mental-health care for our children,” Kollar said.

“Real power in supportive listening”

“I want to acknowledge the pain and grief in this room,” said Jill Ordonez at the start of her talk.

As director of Samaritan’s hotline, which has been in service locally for 30 years, Ordonez described why hotlines are useful: They are easily accessible with no appointment or insurance needed; they are less stigmatizing and confidential, since callers don’t need to give their names.

Intense feelings can be de-escalated by trained listeners, said Ordonez. She described an experience she has had as a hotline staffer: By the end of the conversation, the caller is able to collect himself and make positive decisions, she said. “There is a real power in supportive listening.”

The Samaritan Suicide Prevention Hotline number is: 689-4673.

Ordonez also spoke about United Way’s 2-1-1, a new program locally. Just as people dial 9-1-1 for emergency help for physical ailments, they can dial 2-1-1 for mental ailments to get connected to community resources like hospitals, mental-health counselors, mobile crisis teams, and support groups.

Ordonez also spoke about “why we should look online to prevent suicide.” Teens frequently have conversations online, she said, and it is “important to know what they’re saying about the deceased.”

She described online “postvention” as “intervention after a suicide occurs to prevent further suicides.” Exposure to suicide, Ordonez said, is a documented risk factor.

Ordonez described “two beautiful videos” that friends of Andrea Guido had made, which she found posted on YouTube.

Make sure responses aren’t about joining the deceased or suicide as a helpful solution, said Ordonez. She also suggested posting resources, saying something like, “It sounds like you’re hurting. Here are some people that might be helpful.”

Ordonez urged the crowd to watch out for messages that glamorize suicide or portray it as heroic or describe the deceased as finally having “peace.” She also warned against messages that give details on the method of suicide. Talk about self harm or harm to others should be a red flag, said Ordonez.

Positive messages, she said, define suicide as an end point of mental illness or envision a society where people can get treatment.

“Opportunities to make a difference”

Ordonez urged people to channel their grief through positive actions like supporting walks or fund-raisers for better mental health treatment or volunteering for such causes as staffing a hotline.

“There are opportunities in the community you can get involved with to make a difference,” she said.

Answering questions at the end of the session, Puorto said that suitable memorials would focus on education, for example, a walk that is a learning experience. “So that people see suicide is preventable,” she said.

A memorial bowl-athon is being held in Andrea Guido’s name on Nov. 15 from 2 to 5 p.m. at Town & Country Lanes on Western Avenue in Guilderland. Tickets for $20 may be purchased ahead by calling Deena Lestage at 355-2442.

Lestage’s daughter, Courtney Restifo, has organized the event along with Andrea Guido’s boyfriend, Nicholas Carducci, said Lestage. They are both Guilderland High School students.

“They are feeling so much pain, they wanted to do something positive,” said Lestage. The bowl-athon has two goals, she said; one is to raise awareness about suicide prevention, as outlined by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The other is to raise funds for a scholarship to be awarded to a student “who has overcome personal and emotional struggles to be able to go college,” said Lestage.

“We don’t want to glorify suicide in any way,” said Lestage. “We want people to talk about it. It is taboo…It makes  people uncomfortable. Right now, a lot of students are in pain and so are their parents.”

Lestage and Restifo have had more than their share of pain. Timothy O’Clair was Lestage’s nephew; he completed suicide when Restifo was 8 years old. Then, two years ago, another of Restifo’s close friends, also a Guilderland student, killed himself.

“These kids are hurting so badly, it’s difficult to get through a day at school,” said Lestage. “I’m glad they did outreach at the forum. The community needs to understand, these kids are hurting badly and, as parents, we’re hurting, too….

“Even if they’re 17 years old, they’re still little kids inside, and hurting.” Lestage concluded, “Like they said at the forum, you can talk about cancer and other diseases. We ought to be able to talk about this. There would be fewer ramifications.”

(To read Andrea Guido’s obituary or to read the story about her death, go online to www.altamontenterprise.com and look under archives for Oct. 15, 2009.)

“I live and breathe suicide prevention”

Marianne Reid spoke last and most forcefully.

“I’ve been in your shoes,” she told the crowd. “What you’re feeling today is not going to go away,” Reid said, but those suffering will learn to deal with it in different ways.

Two-and-a-half years ago, her 24-year-old brother completed suicide, Reid said, and she also lost a favorite student to suicide.

“I’m not the same person…I now live and breathe suicide prevention,” she said.

Speaking directly to the teenagers in the crowd, Reid said, “I know life stinks sometimes, but there is help available.”

Reid went on, “We have these ‘S’ words — not the one you’re thinking of — shame, sorrow, stigma…and silence…Many other people know what you’re going through.” Although each situation is different, she said, “The heartbreak is the same.”

Suicide, Reid said, is not the same as any other loss. It does not help saying, this person is at peace, or it was God’s plan, she said. What can help is saying, “I’m sorry you’re going through this; you’re not alone.”

Reid also pointed out that the experts on the panel talked about “completing” rather than “committing” suicide. She said the word “commit” has a negative connotation. “We didn’t commit a crime; we didn’t commit a mortal sin,” she said.

After you’ve lost someone to a suicide, Reid said, “People treat you differently.” She described friends who literally turned away from her and her family because suicide is such an uncomfortable topic.

“Someone in this room — in any group of 20 people — at least one of them is having thoughts of suicide,” said Reid. “Any one of us is at risk.”

She also said, “If we see someone acting differently, we don’t want to butt into their business,” but she urged, “Be nosy…pry, be a nag…Let that person know you care.”

Reid quoted a favorite thought: “Be kinder than necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some type of battle.”

“Come together,” Reid urged the crowd at Town Hall. “You’re now survivors. You can’t do this alone.” She said of those who kill themselves, “This may just be the last straw…They don’t want to die…They just want the pain to end.”

November 21 is the 11th annual Survivors of Suicide Day, which is observed nationwide, Reid said, “for anyone and everyone who’s had a loss by suicide.”

Reid described some of the services offered by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The foundation has support groups for survivors of suicide loss and also has an outreach program where members visit those who are grieving.

“While I’m sad my brother died of suicide, I’m not ashamed…” said Reid. “The more we talk about it,” she said, the better.

“Don’t think you have to have all the answers,” she concluded, “just know there’s help and you can get through this.”

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