Shared sorrow: Staples, community grapple with suicides’ impact
Updated 6:57 am, Saturday, January 30, 2016
Staples High School is used to earning accolades for outstanding academic and athletic status as one of the state’s — and, in some surveys, nation’s — top public secondary schools. And the generous financial support allocated to those programs for Staples’ 1,900 students is the envy of school officials everywhere.
But the Staples community is not used to the kind of events that, through a veil of sorrow, have over the last month shaken the school’s focus on its mission of high achievement and trend-setting educational opportunities.
News that teacher Cody Thomas, a 27-year-old English instructor and adviser to the student newspaper, Inklings, committed suicide last Saturday hit the Staples community like a thunderclap, coming one month to the day after 14-year-old freshman Christopher Lanni had taken his life.
The deaths marked the third loss for Staples students and staff so far in this academic year that is only half over. Chris Lemone, the 49-year-old town Human Services Department’s youth outreach counselor at the high school, died last October.
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While the suicide rate in Connecticut is among the lowest in the nation — 47th of 50 in the nation, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention — one expert said two suicide deaths among the Staples community in a month’s time could be considered “an epidemic.”
“One could consider it an epidemic — two completed
suicides within two or three months of each other,” said Kate Mattias, executive director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness for Connecticut. “I’m sure it has set off bells and whistles for the school and for the community.”
That concern was echoed by Andrea Duarte, behavioral health program manager at the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. “We lose about one person a day in Connecticut to suicide. Suicide is not a common occurrence, but it is concerning to see two in one community,” she said.
School responds with counseling, outreach
In the immediate aftermath of Thomas’ death, the school district announced that Staples counselors, as well as outreach to mental-health agencies, would be available to students, staff or their families who felt the need for support. A similar offer of help was made in the wake of the deaths of Lanni and Lemone.
Mike Rizzo, director of pupil services for the Westport school district, said administrators are focused on supporting Staples students, staff and the community. The schools are responding to the tragedies with advice from the town Human Services Department and the Connecticut Suicide Advisory Board, Rizzo said. “They’ve affirmed the work we’ve done thus far and have referred us to best practices.”
Rizzo said administrators have communicated information to parents about how to talk to their children “about untimely deaths and, in particular, suicides. We want to communicate that there is always help available,” he emphasized.
As for counseling services at the high school, Rizzo said the Staples staff is well trained. “We are very fortunate to have a strong commitment to mental health. We have psychologists, guidance counselors and social workers on staff who have very strong relationships with our staff and our students, and they have been very helpful for us.
“Our staff is very well-trained in mental health,” he added. “We have a team at Staples that includes district and building staff, parents, students and teachers. They’ve met daily since the tragedy.”
need to be involved
Mattias underscored the need for immediate steps to be taken in response to the Staples suicides. “When there are completed suicides, if it is happening among school-aged individuals, the school needs to assemble a task force that can look at the school environment and talk with mental-health professionals to build an environment which is mental health friendly.”
Another major issue for young people who may have mental-health problems is that many have never seen a counselor, Mattias said.
“Very often, younger people who complete suicide may have never seen a counselor. For sure, stigma plays a role in people not talking about health issues and not seeking services,” she said.
“I think schools can bring in programs that will help dispel the stigma and help create an environment where it is normalized to talk about how you feel, if you’re not feeling emotionally well.”
A program Mattias recommends to help the community move forward is called “Ending the Silence,” which NAMI provides to middle and high schools. The free, 50-minute presentation shows that mental health challenges are not necessarily isolated issues. In the program, a young adult and a relative share their stories and focus on what adversely affected them and what helped to resolve those issues. In what Mattias calls a “very interactive presentation,” the program is designed to help normalize mental-health questions and combat their stigma.
Mattias also said involving parents in the conversation is of paramount importance. Because parents may have a hard time talking to their children about such issues, they should work collaboratively with the school, she advised.
A step toward involving the broader community in the discussion was scheduled Thursday night, when a public forum featuring Lisa Athan, the executive director and founder of Grief Speaks, was organized at Christ & Holy Trinity Church by a group of local psychological professionals and family counselors.
Community and clergy mourn, offer support
First Selectman Jim Marpe, expressing sentiments shared by many locally, said in a statement: “Westport has suffered the loss by the suicide of two of our young people: a 14-year-old student and a beloved teacher. Each of these deaths is a tragedy and we extend our deepest sympathies to their families and friends who feel these loses more deeply than we can know.”
The town’s Human Services Department, he said, “is working closely with the Westport public schools to develop an appropriate community response to these tragedies.
The schools are appropriately taking the lead in that response, particularly as it relates to the students and their parents and the colleagues of Mr. Thomas.”
Adding that he has been in regular contact with Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon and Board of Education Chairman Michael Gordon about the deaths, Marpe said a series of community events and forums to address people’s concerns is also being planned.
Local clergy also stepped forward to offer consolation and support, for which Rizzo said school officials are grateful.
Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn, of the Conservative Synagogue, said in texted comments that it is important to let everyone know that, “Churches, synagogues and other houses of worship will continue to offer opportunities for dialogue, counseling and education … we are reaching out to those in need of support and trying to bring healing and hope in the days, weeks and months ahead.”
The Rev. Alison Patton, of Saugatuck Congregational Church, said she and four local clergy colleagues were “available to meet with faculty and staff after school on Monday. Me and my colleagues listened and provided space for how they were feeling.”
And the Rev. Edward Horne, of the United Methodist church of Westport and Weston, said that in his congregation, “There are going to be conversations, whether individually or a Bible study, to allow people to express their sorrow, concern and shock.”