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.

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.

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.

More research on the links between bullying and suicide is under way, but there is not yet concrete evidence that bullying makes kids more likely to kill themselves, Yale researchers noted in 2008 after looking at dozens of international studies. They did find that bullies and their victims were more likely to have suicidal thoughts.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for youths ages 10 to 24, resulting in about 4,600 deaths each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. Most of the deaths occur in the upper ages of that range.

According to a 2011 national survey of 9th- to 12th-graders, about 16 percent of students reported that within the past year they had seriously considered suicide, and about 8 percent said they had attempted it.

These statistics and cases in the news can serve as “a wake-up call to all of us that we have a lot of kids who are distressed … and we need to be looking into the reasons why kids are thinking death is the answer,” Underwood says.

Encouraging a troubled youth to seek help from a trusted adult is a good first step, prevention experts say.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255 or www.suicideprevention.org), is available not only to people who are thinking about suicide, but to anyone who wants guidance on how to help someone else. Experts also urge people to contact 911 if concerned about imminent danger.

For those who see troubling social media posts, Facebook teamed up with the Lifeline in December 2011, creating a link where users can report suicidal content. Facebook follows up by sending a message encouraging the one who posted the content to contact the Lifeline for a confidential conversation. 

Details are not available on exactly how the gun Bart used in Greenwich was stored or how he accessed it.

Firearms account for nearly 50 percent of youth suicides. But safe gun storage, including locking ammunition in a separate location, can prevent suicides, Harkavy-Friedman says.

“Suicide is about crisis management,” she says. “If you restrict the means [such as access to a gun] … and help them through the crisis, they will make it through,” Harkavy-Friedman says.

“We are looking very carefully at what has happened over the last number of years here,” Greenwich Superintendent of Schools William McKersie said in the Connecticut Post, “so we can make sure that all our students going forward do not have to face the kind of decision that Bart made (Tuesday).”

A statement from school district spokeswoman Kim Eves also noted that there are staff members trained to recognize and respond to signs that students are in significant distress or pose a danger to themselves or others.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Helpful resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 or http://www.suicideprevention.org/

Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide: http://www.sptsusa.org/

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: http://www.afsp.org/

American Association of Suicidology: http://www.suicidology.org

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