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The Ripple Effect 

Facing the Stigma of Teen Suicide

click to enlarge Maya Gold hiking in Minnewaska State Park, 2014. - ELISE GOLD
  • Elise Gold
  • Maya Gold hiking in Minnewaska State Park, 2014.

After their daughter, Maya, committed suicide in October 2015, Mathew Swerdloff and Elise Gold spent hours every weekend driving back and forth to Geneseo to spend time with Maya's brother Adin. It's 300 miles from New Paltz, and their conversations during those long car rides hatched an idea.

Compassionate beyond her 15 years, Maya was also deeply sensitive. Her empathy led her to veganism and a future plan to advocate for children in Nepal. With Swerdloff's experience in educational support services and instructional leadership, and Gold's experience in human services and social justice, they decided to start a foundation that would honor Maya's ideals.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Yet, even at a rate of 12.5 percent, teen suicide still trails the highest risk group (white, middle aged men) and even the second highest group (people over the age of 85) by 7 percent. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, mental disorders and/or substance abuse have been found in 90 percent of suicide cases. "Stigma surrounding suicide leads to underreporting," their website states, "and data collection methods critical to suicide prevention need to be improved."

For Swerdloff and Gold, grieving involved unlocking the discussion around suicide–unpacking the social pressures and concerns that affected Maya and openly sharing their own processes. They both keep blogs about their personal experiences with the aftermath of Maya's death. On his blog, Swerdloff writes, "Ten questions that cannot be answered: 3. Will I ever not be 'the man whose daughter committed suicide?'"

Those left grappling with the loss are often haunted by unanswered questions. Swerdloff went down the path of trying to uncover the roots of Maya's pain, searching her phone, her room, and her social media accounts for answers. If she was contemplating suicide, why did she go to the library the night before her death to prep for a test that would happen in a few days? In the end, Swerdloff recognized that certain questions would never be resolved. "I got bits and pieces," he says. "Then, when I got to the end of that pursuit, the question for me became, how do I respond? I realized that she's still here because I'm here, because she's always with me."

A mission for their foundation emerged: to empower youth. Swerdloff and Gold developed a two-part goal: to support programming for teens in the Hudson Valley that builds emotional awareness, and to partner with vetted NGOs in Nepal to provide basic necessities to children there. They incorporated as a 501(c)3 and recruited volunteers who will support the mission. Board member Sarah Dukler, a family friend and Maya's former babysitter, says, "Before this, I just wanted to do anything to help. These are the most incredible people, and they've been torn apart in every way possible."

Spiraling

The summer of 2015 was a difficult one for Maya. She experienced painful social shifts common to the teen experience as she began her sophomore year at New Paltz High School. She was in therapy, but had also started to self-medicate, experimenting with over-the-counter (OTC) medicines that contained dextromethorphan (DM). She was stealing the cough suppressant pills and taking far more than the recommended dosage in order to get high. According to her parents, it was only three weeks from when Maya started using DM until her death.

DM is an ingredient found in more than a hundred OTC cough and cold medicines. Introduced to the US in the 1950s, it works by raising the coughing threshold in the brain. It's non-addictive and non-narcotic with no pain-relieving properties, but when taken in amounts that well exceed the recommended dosage, the side effects include hallucinations. What's called robotripping or skittling is something that about 3 percent of tenth graders admit to trying, according to data collected in 2016 and released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. DM is easier and cheaper to get than illicit drugs, and there's an assumption among teens that because it's a medicine, it's somehow safer than street drugs.

The levels of DM from multiple medicines in Maya's body reveal that she probably experienced a temporary psychotic episode, and made a seemingly impulsive choice. Maya didn't overdose on pills. On a Friday morning before school, she took her own life by other means.

"Depending upon the particular medication, it can have spiraling effects," says Lee Livermore, the public education coordinator for Upstate New York Poison Center, which runs educational public and professional programs on drug use, poisoning, and toxic exposures. "If it's a depressant or a sedative, that can put someone in a state where they're not thinking clearly."

Experimentation is a hallmark of adolescence, and that's not just because of social norms—it's biological. The human brain develops from back to front, with the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that's responsible for assessing consequences and regulating risk behavior and emotions, among other functions, being the last to develop.

Overcoming Invisibility

There's a fear that teen suicide is a social contagion, similar to pregnancy and smoking cigarettes—that open conversations at school assemblies and memorials might encourage struggling peers to be attracted to the attention and believe that social traumas can be vindicated through suicide. The conventional wisdom is to truncate the mourning period in an effort to avoid copycats and clusters.

New methods take into account the influence of social media. Amie Adams, a program director for Astor Clinics of Ulster and Dutchess County, explains that best practices are changing rapidly. "We can't stop the spread of info, so we want to make sure that the information that is going out there is the truth." The Maya Gold Foundation's approach is to provide programming that invites a larger conversation around a taboo topic and empowers mutually supportive communities of teens and adults.

Last February, in response to Maya's death, Astor worked with New Paltz High School to establish an independent and confidential clinic there, similar to partnerships with other districts, to complement the existing supports. The clinic works with kids and families to have safe talks and reduce access to OTCs, prescription drugs, sharp objects used for self-harm, and weapons. "I come from a proactive stance: In our clinical programs, we're checking in at every session and establishing a safe place to talk about this. If you've had a thought or a plan, we want to bring that to the table. It's something we can talk about in a clinical environment, and keep those lines of communication open."

A teen's suicide shines a light on how deadly loneliness and isolation can be. A natural drifting apart happens during adolescence as teens gravitate toward peers and away from parents. But for all their self-determination, resentment, and independence, teens are fragile. In his TEDx Talk, author Roy Petitfils frames overcoming his own adolescent obesity as an overcoming of invisibility. He says, "Rejection is not our greatest fear; our greatest fear is to be invisible." A therapist in Lafayette, Louisiana, an expert in understanding teenagers, Petitfils asserts that adult attention is a gift for teens, and that they are desperate to be seen.

"Teens are almost treated as second-class citizens," says Hannah Goichman, Maya's childhood friend and a Maya Gold Foundation teen advisor. Amelia Verderosa, another teen advisor, agrees, "People will hear us, but they're not actually listening. Teens realize that more than anyone." The teen advisory board was formed last spring, and comprises kids ages 13 to 18. Goichman explains, "The foundation's purpose is about Maya's legacy and what she stood for, more than about her death or the way she died." Verderosa never met Maya. She learned of the foundation when she performed at a fundraiser for the nonprofit with Vanaver Caravan. But, she says, "We all feel Maya coming through."

The foundation was incorporated a month after Maya's death, and has been evolving quickly. Ulster County, the Superintendents Association, and the police have all expressed interest in partnering. Omega Institute in Rhinebeck provided a grant for a weekend retreat. Having worked in the nonprofit world for 40 years, Gold knows the foundation's growth is remarkably fast. "People are just saying yes," Gold explains, "because there's a hunger for this. There's a need." At Omega, the foundation's board crafted long-term plan, which they nicknamed the BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal): That the Maya Gold Foundation becomes widely recognized as a model community-based organization inspiring youth and adults to grow together.

The teen board developed their own mission: to give youth a voice. "Just being on the board, I already feel that way," says Goichman. She sits on the Thrive Review Committee, which so far has offered 13 grants for local teen programming using money collected through fundraising. Goichman says that going through the applications to determine whose purpose aligns best with the mission is the greatest thing she's done on the board. "Saying no didn't feel good, but I felt empowered by it. I had the ability to decide who gets our money."

Right now, everyone involved in the Maya Gold Foundation is a volunteer, and most, if not all, of the money raised goes toward programming. Swerdloff and Gold unfold the leaf of their dining table for board meetings. "Our board and our teen advisory board are an expression of our mission," Gold says. "We're about empowering one another, so this community can be a model for other communities, and the ripples just continue."

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