Friday, June 4, 2004
Teenage kids at risk even in Carlisle
In an idyllic community like Carlisle, it's easy to believe that our children are safe from the perils afflicting other kids in the nation. For example, eating disorders are on the rise, and suicide ranks as the second leading cause nationally of death of teens according to the panel brought together on April 26 at the Concord Elks. A recent survey conducted in the Concord and Concord-Carlisle schools indicates local kids do show signs of these negative trends.
Speakers at the seminar included Concord-Carlisle K-12 Health Education Coordinator Kathy Bowen, Concord-Carlisle graduate Marianne Maurer, parent Vicki Staples, and Alan Querello, executive director of the Samaritans Organization. Concord-Carlisle sophomore Meghan Mickle and junior Alyssa Gray developed the "Anorexia/Suicide Awareness Seminar" as a project for their gold award, the highest level a Girl Scout can achieve.
Concord-Carlisle High School nurse Christine DeBruzzi attended the seminar, and found the content very relevant. DeBruzzi probably has the greatest first-hand interaction with kids experiencing physical issues; however, she quickly acknowledged the support she receives from the rest of the school and the kids themselves on identifying and dealing with problems. "One of the best things about this school is the culture of caring, support, and relationships here," says DeBruzzi. There is some adult for every kid in this school. We all care for each other. Kids are empowered to care for each other."
Eating disorders trigger later issues
Bowen described the results of a recent survey of Concord Middle School and Concord-Carlisle High School students. A link appears to exist between negative self-perception, as evidenced by eating disorders and consideration of suicide, so the survey considered both factors. A factor not considered in the survey but a growing trend in recent years is self-mutilation by piercing one's own skin with knives and other sharp objects.
Only a handful of respondents reported fasting, vomiting, use of diet pills, and serious consideration of suicide. However, the number of respondents reporting such activities grew significantly as the students went from the Concord Middle Schools to the Concord-Carlisle High School in all categories. For example, only two sixth-grade girls and one sixth-grade boy reported fasting (going without food for 24 hours) to lose weight. However, at the Concord-Carlisle High School this number had grown to 46 girls and 32 boys. Among sixth graders, only six girls and one boy responded positively to the question, "During the past 12 months, did you ever seriously consider attempting suicide?" Yet at the Concord-Carlisle High School the number had grown to 72 girls and 40 boys.
"We do experience the same issues as any other high school," acknowledges Concord-Carlisle High School guidance chairperson Karen Bushey, at the school for 34 years. However, actual incidents of eating disorders are low compared to the rest of the state, and there have been no suicides under Bushey's watch. She believes that these results stem from the proactive stance that the school takes. Every student receives a "Student Crisis Handbook" at the start of the year and the faculty and staff respond immediately to warning signs or student inquiries. Bushey says, "We're blessed to have two social workers and one psychologist in special education. Students have a lot of people they can go to."
Yet even in this school environment eating disorders can emerge. For example, Maurer, who graduated in 1996, recounted her high school experience where the 5'6" student dropped from 135 to 105 pounds. As a good student and captain of the cheer-leading squad, no one suspected the athletic girl of having a serious eating disorder. She went from dropping meat from her diet as a self-proclaimed vegetarian to eating only a handful of cereal in the morning. She grew increasingly insular. Fortunately, Maurer has combatted her problem through psychotherapy and medication, but not before seriously damaging her personal relationships with friends and family and causing physical damage. The young woman had her bone-density tested at age 17 and found it to be comparable to that of a 65-year-old. She has since undergone painful gum surgeries caused by improper care and lack of proper nutrition.
Losing a child to suicide
Staples, a Westford parent, spoke openly to a group for the first time about the suicide of her 17-year-old son, Todd Eager. He shot himself in his locked car at Kimball's Farm in Westford on October 3, 1999.
Staples emphasized that Eager had not seemed at risk. Her son was in the top 20% of his class at Westford Academy. She read excerpts from an essay the boy had written the month before his death that spoke positively of the future, and said that teachers interviewed after the event expressed shock and disbelief.
Staples — who had worked in the healthcare field for 30 years, including Emerson Hospital and Children's Hospital in Boston — saw to it that the boy received counseling after she and Eager's father divorced. The high-school junior seemed to be coping well as evidenced by his grades.
Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of the Staples talk was the way that her son planned his own suicide. The intelligent and capable young man secretly built a gun, using information available on the Internet and commonly available materials. He wrote a will, and left letters to family members and friends. Staples shared excerpts from these. The boy wrote of "Something missing in me" and asked those common juvenile questions, "Why are we here? What purpose do we serve?"
Querello, the Samaritans representative, agreed that suicide rates for teens are on the rise. The rate has tripled since 1970. Statistics based on prior years for Massachusetts indicate that 24,000 high school students will attempt suicide in the state this year. Due to the stigma associated with suicide, however, Querello believes the number may understate the problem. He emphasized that in addition to youth, middle-aged people and seniors are at risk. Often people do not feel they have anyone to turn to. As DeBruzzi and Bushey noted, having someone to turn to at Concord-Carlisle High School has made all the difference for our local youth.
Identifying the warning signs of suicide*
- Previous suicide attempts
- Verbal threats of suicide
- Giving away prized possessions
- Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, guilt or anger
- Themes of death in conversation, written expressions, reading selections or artwork
- Avoiding activities that were pleasurable
- Recent loss of a friend, family member, or even a pet
- Drop in grades and/or chronic truancy
- Eating disturbances, sleeplessness or excessive sleeping
- Alcohol or drug use
- Isolation from parents and friends
- A humiliating experience
* Data compiled by the Samaritans
Nowhere to turn? Pick up the phone
Samaritans Hotline 1-617-247.0220
National Crisis Helpline: 1-800-999-9999. Mass Eating Disorders Association (MEDA) 1-617-558.1881.
© 2004 The Carlisle Mosquito