Reader Advisory: This story discusses suicide
Over an 18-month period 20 years ago, four Needham teenagers died by suicide. Their stories and those of others inspired Needham High School graduate Jake Miskin to write and create the movie “Shattered Ice,” to help raise awareness about mental health.
“The community was shaken to its core, and residents were looking for answers,” said State Rep. Denise Garlick, who was chair of the Needham Board of Health at the time. “There was grief but also real potential of the community becoming fractured. The conversation was beginning to divide people.”
In response to the deaths, Garlick cofounded and co-chaired the Needham Coalition for Suicide Prevention (NCSP). The 38-member organization brought together school administrators, teachers, students, police, firefighters, the town manager, the Board of Health, the Needham Community Council, Riverside Community Care, the Council on Aging, clergy, parents and students, among others. Garlick said the NCSP was intentionally a community-based group rather than a group of experts. “You need experts to inform you, but you don’t need them to tell you what to do.”
Tom Denton, director of the K-12 guidance department for Needham Public Schools in 2006 and an NCSP member and subsequent co-chair, remembers how frightening the series of tragedies was for the whole community. He said they held focus groups and sought input from external authorities such as the Mass. Suicide Prevention Program, Gov. Deval Patrick and nationally recognized experts on mental health.
Denton referenced data from state surveys of youth health and risk behavior in the early 2000s that showed a nationwide trend of increased teenage stress and deteriorating mental health. “In 2004, talking about getting mental health counseling was taboo,” he said. “Telling an adult about a friend was seen as a betrayal; kids were afraid to talk to each other.” He noted that one of the key transition points was taking on these deaths as a public health issue rather than as isolated events.
Beth Pinals, a clinical psychologist who was involved in various community and school endeavors including the NCSP, noted what an enormous trauma this was and how “all facets of the town came together. There has to be a bond of trust where people in power can partner with members of the community who are passionate about helping,” she said.
Denton noted that often with a tragedy, “There is a knee-jerk reaction among many administrators to protect reputations. There was something really unique about Needham that we were able to let go of that.” About how Needham was able to respond the way it did, he said, “We had the right people.”
“It took a lot of courage and trust and coming together,” said Garlick. “We had to learn and grow and believe this work mattered and would make a difference.”
According to Pinals, many people have suicidal ideation. If you can catch someone in a moment of pain, you can have an impact. The NCSP asked how we can change the culture and make resources accessible, as well as what to do after a tragedy. “Even just asking, ‘Are you OK?’ or ‘Have you thought about hurting yourself?’ can help someone know their feelings are speakable and acceptable,” she said.
Denton said there was also an increased effort to provide social-emotional education for parents, to help them increase their children’s resilience so children can make mistakes, learn from them and not feel like a failure. QPR training (question, persuade, refer), which involves steps any person can take when worried about a friend or student, was incorporated into faculty education and the high school wellness curriculum. Thousands have since been trained.
Out of a desire to form their own group to address mental health issues, Needham High School students created Own Your Peace, a movement and a culture of sharing personal stories and spreading awareness about emotional wellness that is now in its 16th year. A sculpture representing their values was commissioned from artist Ted Clausen and installed on the high school grounds in 2015. The pair of curved stainless steel panels incorporates quotes from community members ranging from elementary-age children to clergy and parents.
Twenty years later, the OYP group continues to hold assemblies at the high school and middle school and to work with students from neighboring towns. Pinals remains involved in the Needham public schools, and Garlick has carried her work on mental health forward into the state Legislature. One of the first gun reform bills she helped pass included the phone number for the suicide prevention hotline on every gun license. Even after retiring in 2022, Denton said, “It’s a weight you carry.”
Needham resident Jennifer Tirnauer is a physician.