PORTLAND — The unexpected suicide of a student earlier this month rocked the Waynflete School community, and was the private school’s second this academic year.
In a public message posted to a website associated with the school, Head of School Geoff Wagg wrote that Beata Vest, a Cumberland resident and a student in the Upper School, had taken her own life on March 13.
“I spoke with Beata’s father, Brian, and expressed our deepest condolences,” Wagg wrote in the message. “Brian asked that for the moment we provide the family with space to grieve. They are surrounded by friends and family who will take care of their immediate needs. I know that in the days ahead, we will find ways to help them, and we will certainly communicate with you how we can be of support to them.”
The school remained open, and classes and events went on as usual. However, the Boulus House on campus was open for parents and students to gather. A service for Vest was held last Saturday at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Portland.
“We will need all of our collective strength to make our way through this tragedy, to support one another, and to ensure the safety of all our children,” Wagg wrote.
In a message delivered to all students by their advisers, Upper School Director Lowell Libby said Vest was under treatment at the time of her death. Libby wrote that suicide can be caused by depression, which can prevent someone from thinking clearly about their problems and how to solve them.
“It is important for you to know that resources are available at Waynflete for any students who struggle with these feelings,” Libby wrote. “There are treatments that can help. One thing is for certain: suicide should never, ever be an option.”
Vest’s death came less than five months after another Waynflete student, 16-year-old Payton Sullivan, committed suicide on Oct. 31, 2015.
But it is also the fourth in the greater Portland area this academic year, and closely followed a Falmouth High School teenager’s suicide in February. Last September, an 18-year-old Greely High School student committed suicide.
The Falmouth suicide occurred during school vacation, but Falmouth High School opened its doors for two days for students to come in and speak with counselors. Grief counselors were made available when school reconvened, and Greg Marley, the clinical director of The National Alliance of Mental Illness of Maine, held a community forum at the school in early March.
Steve Addario, director of crisis intervention services at The Opportunity Alliance, said Waynflete did everything right in dealing with its tragedies.
“This speaks to the fact that suicide does not fit neatly into a box, it’s very complex,” he said.
Addario said there are many reasons why people contemplate or attempt suicide. He said even when a school does all it can, people will jump to conclusions that the school did something wrong or didn’t do enough, or the parents, or the community, or with the victim themselves.
But Addario said there is no place for blame. Treatment was engaged, there were family and friends there for support. He said it was “so unfortunate” that anyone who commits suicide ended up in a place where their emotional stress overwhelmed them to the tipping point.
“Anybody who is thinking about suicide, I want the message to be there that it may feel unbearable at this moment, but please know that this feeling doesn’t last,” Addario said. “It can be helped.”
Especially for young people, he said, there is concern that a suicide may lead another person to seriously contemplate or attempt it themselves. It’s a phenomenon called contagion.
Suicide contagion is defined by the Department of Health and Human Services as exposure to suicide through some means, which can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors.
Addario said contagion happens in several ways, including the way in which the news is conveyed. The language media use to describe suicide, the level of description used in the report, and glorifying the act are all contributors to contagion. Addario said especially for young people, seeing someone who committed suicide receive coverage and attention can influence their decisions.
“We do want to emphasize suicide is a final act,” he said.
When Addario began working in crisis intervention nearly 20 years ago, he said, only a handful of schools were properly trained in prevention. Now, thanks to a state law passed two years ago, every school must provide prevention and awareness training.
But it’s not just the schools that need to offer this, Addario said, because the issue affects more than just the schools. He said there needs to be more mental health first-aid training, so people know the signs to watch for. He said more communities need to provide that training.
“Awareness is better and that’s what we need to continue doing,” he said. “We have to be able to talk about it. We have to be willing and able to take action.”
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports there were 245 deaths by suicide in Maine in 2015, which equates to a rate of 17.4 per 100,000 population; the national rate was 12.57 per 100,000.
Addario said depression is often linked to suicidal thoughts and gestures. He said warning signs to watch for include mood changes, changes in behavior, increased anger, withdrawal from friends, hopelessness and increased anxiety. He said these and other warning signs are laid out online by the American Association of Suicidology.
The Maine Suicide Prevention Program offers a toll-free, 24-hour hotline for anyone in crisis at 1-888-568-1112. NAMI and Sweetser both offer mental health first aid trainings to those who want to someone others can reach out to.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is also a resource at 1-800-273-8255. Individuals can also chat with someone on the NSPL website. Individuals can call 2-1-1 if they want information but aren’t necessarily looking to speak with someone.
“I think we need to send the message of hope,” Addario said