I’ve been thinking a lot about my hometown lately. I’m from Newton, Massachusetts, a thoroughly liberal lake-speckled suburb about 20 minutes removed from the shimmering hustle of downtown Boston. When the seasons change it’s like an orchestra revving up its string section, and when you’re hungry you’re perpetually within a few miles of a freshly baked bagel. Last year, CNN even said that Newton was the 4th best city in the country to live in, a ranking that to me is inadequate in expressing the warmth and generosity of the community that bundled me up in a smart little package of privilege and opportunity and bore me happily off to NYU last year. Recently though, without much of the fanfare or harrowing details that so fascinate the pulsating mainstream media, two young girls from Newton, Karen Douglas and Katie Stack, committed suicide within two weeks of one another. Worse, the administration of Newton South, my alma mater, seems to want to shunt this fact aside.
To be clear: Newton South High School, which is currently helmed by principal Joel Stembridge, cannot be accused of denying students sufficient access to listening ears. Counselors were made abundantly available the day after Stack, a Newton South sophomore whose cheeks were creased by dimples when she smiled, was discovered dead. In fact, counselors are available to talk year-round at Newton South, which is also lucky to employ (for the most part) thoughtful, insightful, and forthright teachers as eager to discuss current events and your personal consternations as they are to discuss classwork. Temple Beth Avodah, a local synagogue, kept their doors open late Thursday night to welcome anyone in need. Open letters released by both Stembridge and David Fleishman, the Superintendent of Newton Public Schools, provided links to crisis hotlines and guidelines for dealing with grief from a local psychologist. What both of these letters failed to do was to use the word “suicide.”
“The letter was extremely impersonal,” said Tom Howe, a senior at Newton South. “It didn’t acknowledge who she was or what she did at all, not just her suicide but what she meant to the community. [Stembridge] just talked about office hours and staying focused on school” (Stembridge and Fleishman both only said that Stack “died unexpectedly” and that her “death [was] not suspicious.”) Of course, school authorities have a delicate line to walk when notifying the student body about the passing of one of its own.
To publically glorify or lionize the awfulness that is the death of a high school student is just as much of a mistake as masking its circumstances. However, this fact often seems to be lost on those left to process teenage death, resulting in a newfound virtual explosion of grand declarations of grief (as well as cruel, meaningless swill) on social media. It seems that every time I log onto Facebook or Twitter another former classmate is weighing in on this deep maw of tragedy, lamenting the loss of a friend or simply regretting, as many often do, that we did not get to know them better. Meanwhile, Sonya Maria Douglas took to Reddit when Karen Douglas went missing, asking readers for help in locating her sister, while a memorial fund in Stack’s name set up via gofundme.com has already raised north of $7,000 dollars. Compared with the fresh phenomenon of ask-me-anything sites such as ask.fm and spring.me, which have in many cases provided dangerous, anonymous platforms for online bullying, technology has become an intrinsic factor in both the problem of and the solution to adolescent depression.
As a culture, we must stop perpetuating the cycle of denial and grief and denial that comes with the incredibly difficult task of grappling with teenage depression and suicide. Difficult, but not impossible: some schools have already responded to the overwhelming statistics and all too stark evidence of high school-aged kids at risk. While I cannot and will not ever comprehend the direct motivations for what drove Karen and Katie and many others to places they felt were too deep and dark to ever fight their way out of, to simply omit the fact that their deaths were suicides is an insult to the people who love them most and a step backward in society’s attempt to better understand and treat people in crisis.