In the span of three weeks this spring, two teenagers died by suicide in Napa, igniting pain not only within their families but also in the community.
Staffs at Redwood Middle School and Vintage High School helped students deal with these losses, but parents and residents had a lot of questions and concerns, said Bill Carter, mental health director at Napa County Health & Human Services Agency. In response, a forum on child and teen stress, depression and suicide was held at Redwood Middle School on Wednesday night.
More than 200 residents showed up — 130 in the Spanish session, 100 in the English.
It was obvious that the community needed an event like this, said Graciela Rodriguez, a mental health counselor with Napa County Health & Human Services Agency. The audience asked a lot of questions about mental health resources and how to access them.
Francisco and Ana Maria Servin came to the event because their son was friends with one of the students who died – they played soccer together. “It’s really important for us to know what’s happening around suicides,” Francisco Servin said in Spanish.
When his son found out about a classmate’s death, he was very upset, Francisco Servin said. He tried to explain to his son that his friend was in a safe place and that sometimes we don’t know why these things happen.
During the forum, the Servins said that they learned how to talk about these things with all three of their children in addition to learning about what resources are available to them.
“I feel supported by people like the panelists,” Ana Maria Servin said in Spanish.
The form was “interesting and, at the same time, painful,” Paula Rodriguez said in Spanish. Rodriguez, a parent of a 17-year-old and an 11-year-old, explained that it was interesting because she learned a lot, but painful because she’s not sure her children, or other children, would get the help they need without a tragedy happening at school.
Rodriguez said that she’s going to take what she learned back to a fitness class she teaches so that more residents know what to watch out for and where they can go for help.
Establishing trust on a daily basis is important to ensuring open communication, said Carolina Mariposa, program director at Napa Aldea Counseling Services.
Make sure your child feels that they can communicate with you and, if you suspect that they’re feeling depressed or down, bring it up to them, she said. “Try to stay calm, try to stay present when you’re with your child” because their relationship with you is going to be one of their greatest sources of strength.
“Knowing that you’re there is the first step,” Mariposa said.
Martha Alamillo, mental health counselor at Napa County Health & Human Services Agency, talked about common stressors that may be contributing factors to suicide.
Stressors can vary, and not every person affected by them will contemplate suicide, but things like losing a loved one, witnessing a traumatic event, and even balancing social and cultural issues can cause great stress to students. It is important to watch out for indirect verbal cues, changes in mood, and behavioral clues, Alamillo said.
If a child says something like “You don’t have to worry about me anymore,” exhibits changes in academic performance, seems agitated or anxious, or engages in high-risk behavior like running into traffic, there may be something wrong, Alamillo said. Even changes in eating and sleeping habits can be identifying signs that a child is going through something emotional.
“Depression isn’t the only reason people self-harm,” Dr. Mukund Gnanadesikan, a psychiatrist with Napa County Health & Human Services Agency, said. Other mental health disorders like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia can increase someone’s risk for suicide, he said.
Drugs and bullying were other risk factors addressed during the event.
But what about “copycat suicides?” asked someone in the crowd.
“There are a lot of people struggling with depression and other illnesses at any one time,” Gnanadesikan said. Hearing about someone else who went through with a suicide may be enough to trigger another person who had been contemplating it, he said.
“It’s traumatic not only to family members, not only to friends, but to people who may be going through the same things.”
That’s why schools handle suicides differently compared with other deaths in the school system, said Laura Mooiman, program specialist for Positive Behavior Intervention & Support at Napa Valley Unified School District. They don’t want to encourage students by holding things like a candlelight vigil for suicide victims, she said.
School officials don’t shy away from using the word “suicide,” she said, but they want students to see it as a mistake instead of an option.
“What we want to be contagious is the awareness,” Mariposa said, adding that people should know that the community cares and that there is hope.
“Somebody does care” – just knowing that can really be life-saving, Gnanadesikan said.
“It’s really terrifying. Where do we go from here? What as a community can we do differently?” said one resident. “Is there some kind of playbook or some kind of model …?”
“I’m sure that question’s on everybody’s minds,” said Jim Diel, clinical director at Napa County Mental Health & Human Services Agency.
“I think, as agencies, we’re all working very hard to collaborate with each other … what we need to do better is to better communicate,” Mariposa said.
“Bring more of these people [health providers] to the school sites,” added Mooiman. When youth involvement in gangs was a larger issue, they made a plan, which has brought student gang participation down to 3 percent, she said. “People were worried, they made a plan and it worked.”
“Any systematic approach … has to be in the streets, has to be in the community,” Diel said.
The overarching message of openness and communication was repeated again after someone asked about how to talk with children about suicide. “It’s really natural as parents to want to say the right thing,” said Mariposa, but just listening is sometimes enough.
It’s important that your children see you as a person they can talk to about emotional things, said Gnanadesikan. They shouldn’t think: “Dad, mom. They got enough on their plate, they don’t want to hear about what’s going on at school,” he said.
As a parent, you should be mindful of your unspoken reactions – if you’re reluctant to talk about emotional things, they’re not going to bring them to you, he said.
“One of the things I know about kids is that they want to be heard,” said someone from the crowd. “Provide space for your kids to be heard by you” on a daily basis, she said.