By Gianluca D’Elia
Schools in Mercer County have mourned the suicides of seven teenagers over the past 20 months, leaving families, friends and school officials wondering what they could do to lower that number.
Local school district superintendents held a “call to action” meeting in Rider’s Cavalla Room on Jan. 9 to educate parents and teachers on how to combat the issue of teenage suicide.
“We are trying to get the message out that we care,” said Crystal Edwards, the superintendent of schools in Lawrence Township. “We love your kids. The battle is real.”
Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean counties have the highest youth suicide attempt rates in New Jersey, according to the Department of Children and Families’ (DCF) most recent Youth Suicide Report from 2016. There were 412 suicide attempts by individuals from ages 10 to 14 in Mercer County between 2013 and 2015.
However, this public health issue spreads to every corner of the state. The DCF reported that 269 individuals in the same age group died by suicide statewide in that same two-year period. Having lost 26 young individuals, Bergen County ranked first in suicide deaths.
George Scott, resource coordinator at the Trauma Loss Coalition, said at the event that there must be conversation around suicide prevention to reduce the stigma.
“It’s a topic filled with shame and embarrassment,” he said. “Failing to talk about suicide makes matters worse.”
In the wake of one New Jersey student’s suicide, University of Pennsylvania alumnus Jared Fenton founded the Reflect Organization, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit dedicated to improving students’ mental health and reducing the stigma around caring for one’s mental health. He said certain factors, such as social media image-crafting and the rigor of the college admissions process nowadays, may contribute to the mental health crisis young students are dealing with.
“Essentially, research points to varied factors for youth suicide, but a lot of studies point to social media, its debilitating effects and having to curate a ‘perfect’ image online,” he said in a phone interview. “Something I think is interesting is how on Facebook, you have what they call a ‘wall.’ But you’re also literally putting up a wall because social media can be a mask for a large number of people.”
The Reflect Organization was founded partly in response to the death of Madison Holleran, a student athlete from Bergen County who died after jumping from the ninth story of a Philadelphia parking garage in January 2014.
Like the stories of many others who took their own lives at a young age, Holleran’s social media accounts portrayed a college freshman who was happy — she had a good social life, a 3.5 GPA and excelled as part of the track and field team at UPenn.
“It can be isolating when you think everyone’s living a perfect life on Instagram and you know you’re life isn’t perfect. No one else is admitting that their life isn’t perfect either, so there’s a lack of community,” Fenton said. “Masking is so pervasive and debilitating. It’s an epidemic that severely affects students across the country and around the world.”
The American Psychological Association reports that 41 percent of college students struggle with anxiety and 38 percent with depression. Many of these struggles remain hidden beneath the surface. Fenton describes this as “duck syndrome” because “a duck glides across the water gracefully, but underneath the water, their legs are going a million miles per hour,” he explains.
“There are people who aren’t even psychologists, who are coming up with descriptive and accurate names for this phenomenon, and that indicates it’s very real and pervasive.”
Fenton said friends, parents and teachers of students who struggle with their mental health can take steps to establish themselves as a support system.
“Make sure people know they can always go to you, that no matter what, you will not judge. Right now, we have 60 percent of college students reporting they feel very isolated,” he said, citing a study from the American College Health Association that surveyed the emotional health of 28,000 students from 51 schools nationwide.
“If we can break that isolation and say you have a person you can go to and call, and be yourself around, then we can start reversing the crisis,” he said. “Let them know they can be themselves, you are there to support, and you will love them for who they are.”
As for personal advice for those who might be struggling, Fenton said to “be open, be real and speak your mind. You have so much to offer and you’re unique. Embrace that, don’t let other people tell you who to be, and be who you want to be.”
Confidential telephone counseling is available on New Jersey’s suicide hotline: 1-855-NJ-HOPELINE (654-6735). Specialists are available 24/7. More information on the Reflect Organization can be found online at reflecteffect.org.