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Teen's suicide in Conn. renews focus on bullying as factor in complicated mix

A friend's mother says the 15-year-old high school student was bullied for years, but prevention experts caution that the causes for suicide are complex and often less visible.

By Staff writer / August 29, 2013



The start of the school year in Greenwich, Conn., was overshadowed this week by the suicide of 15-year-old high school student Bartlomiej “Bart” Palosz.

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Crisis counselors were on hand Wednesday in the schools the boy had attended, while police and school officials investigated the circumstances leading up to the boy’s death by self-inflicted wounds from a gun that police say was stored in a locker in his home.

An active Boy Scout, he had been bullied since arriving from Poland in elementary school, the mother of a friend of his told the Connecticut Post. The newspaper also reported that Bart posted numerous troubling messages on Google+ indicating suicidal thoughts and apparent attempts, writing in July that he had swallowed pills.

The news emerged at the same time that a mother in New York City, Lisbeth Babilonia, filed a lawsuit claiming the city’s education officials and parents of bullies failed to stop bullying that she reported before her 12-year-old son, Joel Morales, killed himself in 2012.

While bullying is important to address, suicide-prevention experts caution that a complex set of factors, many of them perhaps less visible, underlie suicides.

Bullying “is certainly a factor [in some cases] and could be a triggering factor, but the challenge for all of us is to really understand that we need to pay attention to kids before they get to that point,” says Maureen Underwood, clinical director of the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide in Freehold, N.J.

Warning signs can range from changes in mood and behavior to loss of sleep or substance abuse. More direct signs that someone is thinking about suicide include talking about a desire or attempt to harm oneself or messages about distributing belongings, akin to a will. 

Don’t dismiss violent comments or statements like “I want to die,” Ms. Underwood urges. “That’s not just normal teenage conversation.”

Contrary to some people’s fears, reaching out to a distressed youth to find out if he or she is thinking about suicide “is not going to make them suicidal,” prevention experts say.

If people oversimplify youth suicide and always link it to bullying, parents might think, “Oh, my child is not being bullied, so my child is not at risk,” says Jill Harkavy-Friedman, senior director of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in New York. The vast majority of those who kill themselves had a mental illness that was diagnosable and treatable, she says.

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