DARIEN — About 300 community members joined a Zoom call on Monday evening focused on recognizing and discussing warning signs of suicide and mental health struggles in children and adolescents.
The call was in response to the death of Hayden Thorsen, a 16-year-old sophomore at Darien High School.
Superintendent of Schools Alan Addley said in a statement on Monday that Thorsen’s death was “a heartbreaking loss.”
“This is the third student that the school has grieved in the past two months. The pain of losing these beautiful young lives is unbearable. It is devastating for the families, the school and the town. Our school community is understandably hurting from these tragic losses of life,” wrote Addley.
In March, the district mourned the loss of 17-year-old Matthew McEvoy. In April, 16-year-old Henry Farmer died as a result of medical complications.
Frank Bartolomeo, the senior clinical advisor for adolescent services at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan and one of the leaders on the call, pointed out that the U.S. Surgeon General had said in December that the country needed to prepare itself to address youth mental health crises. He told CT Examiner that suicides among young people had been on the rise, and that the COVID pandemic had only exacerbated the problem.
Bartolomeo told CT Examiner that Darien had put in place a “massive” response to Thorsen’s death, including the Zoom call Monday evening, a conversation at the Darien Depot and making counselors available over the weekend.
High School Principal Ellen Dunn wrote in a letter to the community on Monday that the school had been in touch over the weekend 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 give the teachers time to work with response teams and prepare them to speak with their students about loss and grief. During the day, students were transported in small groups to see counselors and support staff at the school.
Scott Newgass, an education consultant at the state Department of Education who works with districts on school crisis response, declined to provide information about specific school districts. But he said that, in general, when the state receives a call that a student has died by suicide, the state connects the district with its local mobile crisis center.
Newgass said that the first thing a district needs to focus on is how to have conversations with the students about what happened, with a special focus on students that were closest to the adolescent who died.
“Very often following a crisis of this nature, there’s a lot of concern in the community. And of course, everybody wants to do something. But the first thing that we need to help districts understand is that you don’t react impulsively and large task forces are for a later period,” said Newgass.
Bartolomeo said on the call that many of the warning signs of suicide mirrored those of depression — loss of interest in school or activities, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, isolation or an obsession with death. He said that children with mental health disorders, as well as those with family history of mental health, substance abuse or suicide are at a higher likelihood to commit suicide. In many cases, he said, adolescents who attempt suicide feel trapped and as though they have no other options.
“Suicide is often the endeavor to be relieved of acute emotional pain,” said Bartolomeo.
Bartolomeo told CT Examiner that adolescents experience grief differently – some will be unaffected, and some will have different levels of guilt. He said that the way their grief manifests is also visibly different than the way it would appear for an adult.
“A healthy adult can tolerate more intense grief for a longer period. Adolescents have a different tolerance level for that. And so you might see them grieving and then kind of fooling around and being kind of goofy afterwards. It can be kind of confusing and it can be confusing for people who are watching them,” he said.
Chelsea McGee, manager of clinical services at the Center for Hope, said on the call that children in Darien were grappling with not just the multiple deaths in the high school, but also the more widespread loss that comes from the pandemic.
“There’s so many factors that go into the overwhelming feelings that some of your kids may be experiencing,” siad McGee.
Bartolomeo said that parents should make an effort to express curiosity about their child’s feelings and not make any judgments — for example, expressing surprise that a young adult with “so much to live for” would take their own life.
“There’s nothing like judgments that will quickly shut down a conversation with a kid,” said Bartolomeo.
Newgass pointed out that adults, including school staff, needed to make sure they were taking care of their own mental health.
“All of us are thinking about the children, but sometimes there’s enormous stress within the family for adults. There’s also enormous stress for school staff who may have known the students very, very well,” he said.
Newgass also said that districts like Darien that found themselves facing a crisis this late in the school year needed to focus on preparing students for the summer, when they would be outside of the structure of normal school days. He said that some youth services boards have strong supports for students during the summer. Families can also reach out directly to mobile crisis centers for both children and adult mental health crises.
“The first few days, of course, is addressing the shock and the grief and the loss as much as they possibly can,” said Newgass. “But in the remaining weeks, they need to work towards transitioning students through developing resiliency, because in three or four weeks these students are going to lose the structures and supports normally associated with the school system.”