Response critical during suicide aftermath

Experts say the ongoing response by Glendale Unified officials to the suicide last week at Crescenta Valley High School will be critical in preventing a repeat event.

Students with a history of mental illness or past suicide attempts are most vulnerable to the so-called suicide contagion, a phenomenon in which one suicide triggers another, they added.

“One of the things we worry about with both shootings and suicide is that it will spread,” said Ron Astor, a researcher at USC and an expert in bullying, school violence and crisis intervention. “In the next week or two, all the way up to the next month, everyone needs to be hyper alert.”

Peers and family remembered 15-year-old Drew Ferraro Wednesday at a funeral service six days after authorities say he jumped to his death from a three-story building at Crescenta Valley High School. It happened during lunch period and shocked the community.

Well-developed suicide prevention programs are effective, but few districts actually have them, Astor said. Best practices include placing extra focus on children with a history of mental illness, as well as encouraging students to alert an adult if they suspect a peer might be at risk.

“Friends are always the first to know,” Astor said. “It is the peers that find out before anybody else does. And almost always, kids tell somebody beforehand. They tell their friend, they hint, they send an email.”

The portion of the brain that controls impulse and emotion is not fully developed until about 24 years old, said Susan Lindau, a Los Angeles-based licensed clinical social worker who specializes in severely depressed and suicidal patients.

That is why some teenagers demonstrate unpredictable behavior, she said.

Parents and school officials should strive to educate teenagers about the development of their own brain, and encourage them to talk to someone if they feel their world is crashing down around them.

“Sometimes it really feels that way, and when you are feeling that way you need to get another perspective,” Lindau said. “When you feel that overwhelmed, you don't have good vision.”

Once a suicide does occur, the immediate response is critical, the experts said.

“There needs to be immediate discussions with the kids who knew this kid, no question about it,” Astor said. “There needs to be immediate crisis intervention around the kids who witnessed it.”

Glendale Unified officials said they have deployed all resources, while also encouraging parents to initiate conversations at home.

“There were some teachers and supervisory personnel on site right away,” said district spokesman Steve Frasher. “They knew who was in the quad and who wasn't. Those kids were interviewed by detectives right away, and also connected with counselors and psychologists right away, and those conversations continue as needed.”

Officials will remain vigilant during the coming weeks, Frasher added.

“The school and crisis team professionals are very aware of kids that fall into those ‘watch' categories,” Frasher said.

Marleen Wong, who as a former director of mental health with Los Angeles Unified School District created the crisis intervention system now in use there, said that parents need to take to heart what their children tell them.

Wong was contacted by Glendale Unified officials this week to possibly assist with the Crescenta Valley High response.

“There are a lot of things we can do to prevent this,” Wong said of the Crescenta Valley High School suicide. “Parents, especially, can really pay attention to their children and take seriously the challenges that they face. Regardless of how strong the family is, or how great the school is, sometimes the children have an individual problem.”

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