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Worlds Colliding

Communities grapple with youth suicide.

Last month, the dissimilar worlds of Douglas County, Colo., and Newton, Mass., collided in twin tragedies of horrific proportions: five teen suicides. Newton recorded two others earlier in the school year.

Atop the heartache and head scratching loomed a nagging question, is suicide contagious?

In short, the answer is no…at least in the scientific sense. In truth, suicides—particularly among youth—may be suggestive to those already contemplating self-harm.

With suicides on the rise across the land, experts are scrambling to keep up and reach out. The goal: offering not only support for those left behind, but also education for first-responders to young people in pain.

The experiences in Douglas County and Newton may serve to highlight the warning signs of suicidal ideation and offer up a road map of where to turn and what to do when such deaths occur.

On the first count, Colorado’s Dale Emmy of the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention program advises parents to talk with their teens if they see dramatic changes in behavior or if he or she is talking about suicide or death.

Hard to believe one wouldn’t.

Yet many adults unfamiliar with the rocky terrain of mental health fear planting the idea of suicide simply by raising it in conversation. Falling victim to this fallacy inhibits vital dialogue and leaves young people at greater risk.

But what to say?

Expressing genuine concern for the health, safety and welfare of a young person is always a good place to start. Also, noting trouble signs can tighten focus around such things as declining school performance, social problems, and substance use.

When to say it?

In a letter sent to parents, a school official in Colorado suggests that periods of free time, such as breaks and long weekends, may be critical times for observation and communication.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, other warning signs include the following.

Changes in activities, such as:

• Neglect of personal appearance

• Neglect of responsibilities

Changes in emotions, such as:

• Appearing or talking about feeling sad, hopeless, bored, or overwhelmed

• Having outbursts, severe anger or irritability

• Appearing or talking about feeling more anxious or worried

Changes in behavior, such as:

• Getting in trouble, being rebellious, aggressive or impulsive

• Running away or threatening to run away

• Eating or sleeping less or more

• Losing interest in activities

• Hurting oneself, such as cutting or severe dieting

Given that young people, short on life experience, tend to believe that the way they feel when distressed or depressed might actually be the way they will feel forever forward, a critical conversation every parent should have with every child—even in good times—is one that notes that almost all people, at some point in their lives, experience significant emotion pain and that it always gets better, always gets easier.

In other words, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, even if they cannot yet see it.

This particular line of dialogue may be most helpful for reactive depression that can spur impulsive acts.

It is also important that children know that there is always help available for themselves—or for friends they have concerns about, for they too, can be key to preventing tragedy.

Finally, on the prevention path, Douglas County Coroner Lora Thomas told the media that there are usually underlying mental health issues, swiveling the spotlight back around to how we are connecting with and caring for our kids. To learn more about this threat to teens in Colorado, the state legislature is poised to establish a Suicide Prevention Task Force.

Seems like a good idea.

And in Newton, community forums held in the aftermath of the October and February suicides have yielded a new $100,000 initiative to better identify at-risk youth and support prevention programming in middle and high schools throughout the city. According to The Boston Globe, these funds will provide for more direct student support and additional training for school counselors and teachers.

In the end, communities everywhere have a duty to proactively address the growing menace that is youth suicide. It’s not contagious but it is preventable.

Stephen Gray Wallace, an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. He is also a senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, and a parenting expert at For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit

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