To the Editor:
In the last three years, three Hunterdon Central Regional High School students and two former students have died by suicide: sophomore Alison Vandal in December 2017; senior Eden Carrera Calderon in October 2019; freshman Joseph Drelich, Jr in January 2020; graduate Jared Yazujian in January 2020; and graduate, Christopher Soldano in July 2018. These tragic deaths have rocked our community to its core. In a county of only about 125,000 people, it seems everybody knows somebody who has been affected by them.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people between the ages of 10 and 24. It's a public health crisis that is largely being ignored. But, at least in our little corner of the state, that may be about to change.
I attended an event called The Fight For Our Children, sponsored by Safe Harbor Child Access Center. Safe Harbor is a 501(c) 3 that "provides services to separating, divorcing, and divorced families to ensure that children have continuing contact with both parents and other family members. [They] provide a safe environment for individuals healing from trauma." For teenagers struggling with mental health issues, it's a place of warmth, comfort, acceptance, love, sharing and healing.
The event was originally supposed to be held at Safe Harbor's facility, but the response was too big for their small space so it was moved across the street to the Flemington Baptist Church where a standing room only crowd filled the basement meeting room.
For the next two-and-a-half hours Safe Harbor's director, Carol Dvoor, moderated the discussion among students, parents, grandparents, teachers, mental health professionals and other concerned citizens who poured out their ideas, experiences, heartbreaks and hopes in an effort to stop this epidemic.
The most compelling speakers were, of course, the students: those who are dealing with depression and anxiety on a daily basis and those fighting like hell to make sure their friends get help.
Hunterdon Central is one of the largest high schools in the state. Three thousand backpack-laden students from four different sending districts move through various campuses, taking any number of courses from a catalog that rivals a community college. And with the county Vo-Tech literally on the same campus, there is a path of study for every student. It's often said that if you can't get an education at Central, you're just not trying. Both my children graduated from it; both did very well academically; both had very different experiences socially.
For all the great opportunities Central affords its students, in a school that size, it's easy to get lost, to slip through the cracks, to go almost unnoticed. And if a student is dealing with mental health issues, there just aren't enough counselors to service all the students.
I want to be very clear: my point here is not to lambaste Central. You don't get to be a Blue Ribbon School by accident. I know many dedicated teachers there who are committed to providing the best possible learning experiences for their students. They care deeply about them, as those who were in attendance last night expressed. But I was very disturbed by reports from the students who told us that, after each suicide, once the mandatory period of 'crisis-counselors-will-be-available-to-our-students' time was over, students were pretty much expected to go back to 'normal'. Time and again, their proposals for clubs, support groups, safe spaces, memorials and the like were turned away by administration. Some were told they were being "too impatient".
Again, I'm not trying to point fingers at the school. I only heard one side of the story. To be fair, there were parents who did speak about things the school has done to provide more mental health services for students. I have no doubt that the administration is very concerned and doing what they believe is best. But, one thing was very clear: these students don't want solutions handed to them; they want to be part of creating them. It's their right. It's their way to heal. It's their friends who are dying. And if they are denied that right, the school is missing a huge opportunity for some innovative healing.
I am not an expert in suicide, nor am I a mental health counselor, but I did try to take my own life when I was 14. I felt I had no way out. I felt there was no hope, no other option to escape the pain. And, most importantly, I felt like there was no one who would or could help me. That's the tipping point. Fortunately, I wasn't successful, and eventually found the help and support I needed. But it wasn't until I was in my 20s and for many kids, that's just too late.
These kids need help. Now. Is it any coincidence that teen suicide rates have been climbing alongside the education 'reform' movement? Alongside the pressure from state and federal governments to undergo a 'rigorous' education? To perform like a trained dog on standardized tests so their teachers can keep their jobs?
In addition to the social/emotional realities of being a teenager—which are now played out in real time on social media—their childhoods are being cut short. Students are forced to learn more and do more at alarmingly younger ages, and it's simply not developmentally appropriate. Kindergarten is now the new first grade. Gone are nap time and lots of play and socialization. Now it's math, reading, writing and yes, testing. The process continues right up through high school where state and federal mandates expect all students to be 'college and career ready'. Why? So they can spend four or more years racking up tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in loan debt with no clear way out?
Nowadays, it's not unusual for students in kindergarten and first grade to be under a doctor's care for anxiety and depression. This is madness. We must do better. We owe it to this generation, and those that will follow, to give them something other than a nihilistic view of their future.
Where to start? I plan on going to the next Hunterdon Central Board of Ed meeting. Then I plan to start volunteering at Safe Harbor. Hope you'll make a difference in your community. Lives depend on it.
We said this pledge at the beginning and end of the meeting last night. It bears repeating:
I pledge to help raise awareness for the importance of mental health. To ally with others in my community to break the stigma surrounding mental illness and be a resource for those who need it. To listen to others without judgement and be open and considerate to all people regardless of their situation. To act when I see someone who is showing signs of mental illness. To educate myself and others on the issue. To do my best to treat myself kindly and prioritize my wellbeing no matter what problem I might face. To reach out for help if I need it. And above all, to remember that there are always people around me who love and support me. I pledge that I will do everything in my power to help end this problem within our community and the world.