‘WE DIDN’T KNOW ANYTHING’
Parents and victims come to terms with suicide and suicide attempts
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Alexa Berman in the summer of 2008. She ended her life less than a month after this picture was taken.
Debbie Zegas Berman and her daughter, Alexa, the day of her Bat-Mitzvah in May 2007.