‘WE DIDN’T KNOW ANY­THING’

Par­ents and vic­tims come to terms with sui­cide and sui­cide at­tempts

New Haven Register (New Haven, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Clare Dig­nan mdig­nan@hearst­medi­act.com @clare_d13 on Twit­ter

One hun­dred and six. That’s how many chil­dren and teens in Con­necti­cut ended their lives from 2010 to 2016.

They ranged in age from 10 to 19.

Their deaths leave un­sus­pect­ing love ones puz­zled with many ques­tions and those who sur­vive the at­tempts to end their lives ad­mit they still face the same chal­lenges.

“John” has tried three times since he was 11 to end his life. He tried at 12, again at 17 and a third time when he was 23. He said he still strug­gles with sui­ci­dal thoughts. John (the Regis­ter is not dis­clos­ing his real name to main­tain his pri­vacy) said he has dealt with de­pres­sion since child­hood and he still ex­pe­ri­ences feel­ing dis­con­nected and out of touch with re­al­ity.

“As some­one who has at­tempted sui­cide, that doesn’t go away,” he said. “I’ll al­ways have that piece of me. I’m try­ing to work on be­ing as op­ti­mistic as other peo­ple can be, but un­til I get out of my rain cloud, I don’t know.”

John, who is trans­gen­der, said he was the tar­get of con­stant bul­ly­ing and along with the deaths of his grand­par­ents and the sex­ual as­sault he had ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore he tran­si­tioned were among the fac­tors that drove him to at­tempt to end his life.

But he said it was not some­thing he could talk about at home and men­tal health was never taken se­ri­ously.

“It was not an en­vi­ron­ment in which I could speak about my feel­ings, or how I was feel­ing to­ward other things, other peo­ple,” John said. “It just wasn’t that kind of house­hold.” He is not alone. A study pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Ado­les­cent Health found that from 2010 to 2015, 1,878 teens 15 to 19 years old died or were hos­pi­tal­ized for sui­ci­dal be­hav­ior in Con­necti­cut. More than two-thirds were young women, which ex­perts from the Mayo Clinic say could be linked to higher rates of de­pres­sion in women and the hor­monal fluc­tu­a­tions they ex­pe­ri­ence. United Way of Con­necti­cut re­ports teen girls also con­sti­tute the ma­jor­ity of sui­cide and cri­sis in­ter­ven­tions calls.

Hid­den pain

Alexa Ber­man was in a cri­sis — but no­body knew.

A bright, tal­ented young girl, her mother, Deb­bie Ze­gas Ber-

man, said the Mil­ford teen dis­played all the signs of a typ­i­cal teen: She said her daugh­ter had the lead in the mid­dle school play, was a teacher’s dream stu­dent, had the love of her fam­ily and the at­ten­tion of a boy in her class.

But just as she was about to start high school, she ended her life.

She was just 14 years old.

“It’s not so im­por­tant how she did it,” Deb­bie Ber­man said. “It’s im­por­tant that she did.”

No­body saw the dam­age that had been done un­til it was too late.

“She was a per­fectly happy girl, out­go­ing, in­cred­i­bly bright,” Ber­man said. “You wouldn’t look at her and think she didn’t fit in.”

But when Alexa was in eighth grade, she be­came the tar­get of bul­ly­ing by a group of girls, Ber­man said. They con­vinced Alexa’s best friend to stop talk­ing to her and started ex­clud­ing Alexa from their group. The girls would leave her sit­ting by her­self in the lunch­room, Ber­man said. At school, they ig­nored her but would mes­sage her online about ev­ery­thing they were do­ing without her.

“She didn’t un­der­stand the cru­elty,” Ber­man said of the daugh­ter she adopted from Rus­sia when she was 3. “This friend was so deep a con­nec­tion, she couldn’t heal.”

Ber­man said doc­tors told her Alexa, who was quick to hug peo­ple — even strangers, suf­fered from at­tach­ment dis­or­der.

At the time, Ber­man said she also didn’t un­der­stand how these in­ci­dents af­fected her daugh­ter.

Teen years

Too of­ten, the is­sues teens strug­gle with are un­der­es­ti­mated or aren’t taken se­ri­ously be­cause of their age, said Amy Lupoli, program man­ager of spe­cial­ized ser­vices at the Clif­ford Beers Clinic. A par­ent might tell their child to “for­get about it” when they are teased at school or to “walk it off” when they fight with a friend.

“They want to be heard and want peo­ple to lis­ten,” Lupoli said. “Some­times, they don’t know how to be heard.”

But these mo­ments mean more in a teenager’s life than an adult may re­al­ize, Lupoli said.

“As adults, we kind of over­look the emo­tions that teenagers are feel­ing, which are so in­ten­si­fied,” she said. “Is­sues like fight­ing with a friend or break­ing up with a girl­friend or a boyfriend are so much more im­pact­ful in these youths’ lives, but we some­times brush it off be­cause we kind of just see, as adults, that it’s not that big of a deal.”

Dr. Jef­frey Deitz, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try at Quin­nip­iac Univer­sity, said there is tremen­dous rewiring that hap­pens in ado­les­cent brains and this a time when peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence the most chaos emo­tion­ally. That’s why teenagers are so im­pacted by life events, he said. They are un­sta­ble and their emo­tions can flip one mo­ment to the next.

“The child who went to school this morn­ing is not nec­es­sar­ily the same kid who came home,” Deitz said. “When you start tak­ing away sup­ports, you have some­one who is emo­tion­ally col­lapsed. It starts to erode their con­fi­dence.”

Schools play an es­pe­cially im­por­tant role in teens’ lives. It’s where they spend most of their time and form many of their so­cial con­nec­tions.

But it also can be a place where teens feel lost and ig­nored.

Mor­gan High School Prin­ci­pal Keri Hag­ness tries to foster open com­mu­ni­ca­tion so no stu­dent is left feel­ing alone.

“Stu­dents need to have a voice in or­der to feel trusted,” she said.

Talk­ing about sui­cide is im­por­tant in schools be­cause it’s a place where teens can feel es­pe­cially iso­lated. Hag­ness wants to give stu­dents an op­por­tu­nity to have a con­nec­tion with some­one at school, whether it’s a teacher, a coun­selor or their peers.

“It’s on us to know what our stu­dents are feel­ing and what they’re say­ing to each other and tak­ing that se­ri­ously,” she said.

Get­ting teens to talk about sui­cide is tak­ing place in high schools across the coun­try — and Net­flix may have opened the door with its se­ries about teen sui­cide set in a fic­ti­tious high school in “13 Rea­sons Why.”

It tells the story of a teenage girl’s sui­cide and de­picts the trauma she ex­pe­ri­enced pre­ced­ing her death. And a song about sui­cide — 1-800283-8255, named for the sui­cide preven­tion hot­line — by the rap­per “Logic” is soar­ing up Bill­board’s Hot 100.

The graphic de­pic­tion of the char­ac­ter’s death in “13 Rea­sons Why” has made the se­ries con­tro­ver­sial be­cause show­ing sui­cide can be a trig­ger for kids at risk and lead to “sui­cide con­ta­gion,” ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Sui­cide Preven­tion Hot­line web­site.

The pain from los­ing a child to sui­cide never goes away. Af­ter 17 years, Deb­bie Mor­gia still car­ries the loss of her 18-year-old daugh­ter Ali­cia with her.

Mor­gia said she didn’t un­der­stand the signs of sui­ci­dal be­hav­ior.

“We didn’t know any­thing,” she said. “We never thought about it as hap­pen­ing to us.”

Ali­cia had been sick with rheuma­toid arthri­tis since she was in fourth grade, Mor­gia said. She had been a happy girl who loved to play the flute, but af­ter her di­ag­no­sis, she changed and be­came bit­ter, Mor­gia said.

Ali­cia couldn’t com­pre­hend that she had what she thought of as an “old per­son’s dis­ease.”

The med­i­ca­tion she took made her gain weight, she be­gan to hate her body and be­came de­pressed, her mother said.

When she was 16, Ali­cia made her first at­tempt to take her life. Her mother ad­mits she thought Ali­cia just wanted at­ten­tion and put her in ther­apy.

“There’s al­ways those signs that you don’t see un­til af­ter un­der­stand­ing de­pres­sion,” Mor­gia said.

She tells others her story so peo­ple can start talk­ing about the is­sue.

“I’m not go­ing to lie about it,” Mor­gia said. “I’m amazed at how many peo­ple are not com­fort­able talk­ing about it, but I think a lot don’t want any­one to know what their loved one did.”

Ber­man said “sui­cide is not the same as other losses,” and some peo­ple re­act as if it is a shame­ful thing. But she con­tin­ues to share her daugh­ter’s story to help pre­vent more youth sui­cides through her web­site SheMat­tered.com.

Un­der­stand­ing

John said “it does get bet­ter but it’s also a roller coaster, so it’s kind of cheap to say it gets bet­ter.

“It’s per­sis­tent,” he said. “But with the right tools, with learn­ing to change your mind­set, it’s pos­si­ble to get bet­ter.”

John said he isn’t there yet. And when he hears of some­one who took their life, he said his first thought is of the pain the per­son must have been go­ing through and he em­pathizes in­stead of judg­ing.

“I don’t ad­vo­cate for peo­ple to do it, but I also un­der­stand,” he said.

And un­der­stand­ing is what a per­son on the verge of sui­cide needs.

A young woman from a foster home who Lupoli treated at the Clif­ford Beers Clinic had no con­nec­tion with her bi­o­log­i­cal fam­ily. She had a his­tory of trauma and had been hos­pi­tal­ized for self-harm and sui­cide at­tempts.

“To get in touch with the trauma was just so painful,” Lupoli said. “To have to think about it and to have to live with it, she just felt like it was eas­ier to die.”

The girl didn’t trust adults and when she en­tered a peer group for treat­ment, she ex­pected con­fronta­tions, but the other mem­bers were just there to lis­ten to her story.

And that was what she needed to help her be­gin to heal.

“All she re­ally wanted was some­body to sit with her while they lis­tened to what she had to say with no judg­ment,” Lupoli said. “Our first in­stinct as adults is to quickly solve the prob­lem or tell them the an­swer and they just some­times want you to lis­ten. And their peers do that the best.”

PE­TER HVIZDAK / HEARST ME­DIA CON­NECTI­CUT

Deb­bie Mor­gia of Mil­ford, whose daugh­ter, Ali­cia, com­mit­ted sui­cide at 18, sits in her daugh­ter’s bed­room, now con­verted into a home of­fice, and holds Ali­cia’s beloved teddy bear.

COUR­TESY OF DEB­BIE ZE­GAS BER­MAN

Alexa Ber­man in the sum­mer of 2008. She ended her life less than a month af­ter this pic­ture was taken.

COUR­TESY OF DEB­BIE ZE­GAS BER­MAN

Deb­bie Ze­gas Ber­man and her daugh­ter, Alexa, the day of her Bat-Mitz­vah in May 2007.

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