Depression

Who can help teens suffering from mental health issues and contemplating suicide?

Anyone, including their friends, experts say.

“See something, say something. Every time it’s said, take it seriously,” said Dr. Inua A. Momodu, chairman of AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry.

On Sunday, a teenage boy who attended Ocean City High School died by suicide, becoming the third student there in four years to take their own life. School officials confirmed the death but declined to comment further.

Nationally, suicides have risen in all but one state in the past 17 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while the rate of suicide in New Jersey actually declined from 2015 to 2016, the state’s rate increased by 19 percent over a 17-year period.

High-profile suicides of celebrities, such as fashion designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain, continue to push the issue into the national spotlight.

Experts say teen suicide is a complicated issue, and schools’ prevention efforts are just one of many components.

Momodu said schools play a “huge role” because students spend much of their time there, but getting families involved is crucial. He said schools can educate the community about the warning signs of suicide — bullying, social withdrawal, expressing hopelessness, substance use — and families should engage in conversations with children and teens.

“Talking about it does not promote suicide, rather it prevents suicide,” Momodu said. “Suicide is preventable. There is hope and there is treatment for it.”

AtlantiCare sponsors Teen Centers at several local schools for all students and also offer services for those suffering from mental health problems and issues with home and social life. Cathleen Morris, director for the AtlantiCare teen center at Buena Regional School District, said the program offers recreational activities to all students to encourage kids to come through the center and to destigmatize mental health issues.

“You’re talking to them about their day, and they’re sharing things that you can follow up individually with,” Morris said.

She suggested schools need more training for staff to recognize the signs of mental distress.

After two suicides in two years, the Ocean City School District responded by adding counselors, an anonymous reporting hotline and other programs to help students. This year, the district also opened a teen wellness center for students who are facing mental health issues. A district spokeswoman said counseling was available for students this week in both group and individual settings.

An open letter to parents on the district’s Facebook page detailed the services available to students and families.

“When a friend, classmate or loved one dies, children feel and show their grief in different ways. The two most important actions the district and the school staff are doing now is to respond to the students’ grief with comfort and reassurance; and following a set school schedule, as there is comfort in that routine at this difficult time,” the post states in part.

Mental health advocate Greta Parrott, of Upper Township, said what Ocean City has done is admirable, but students have to actually use the services to get help. That is even more complicated, she said.

“Since the last couple of tragedies a few years ago, I know this school has gone above and beyond to provide programs for the students,” Parrott said. “My concern is that even though there are numerous programs available, a lot of the kids won’t utilize that.”

Parrott is the founder of the Facebook forum A Revolution for Mental Health and has been a vocal advocate for mental health awareness, carrying a coffin as she walked across the state in 2016.

“It’s something we really need to educate everybody on and understand. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. If your child has cancer, the whole community would reach out to you, but a child with mental health issues, they hide in shame,” she said.

If you or someone you know is in need of immediate mental health assistance, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Contact: 609-272-7251 CLowe@pressofac.com Twitter @clairelowe

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.