The suicides of two students at Mandeville High School this week rattled many north shore residents, with parents grappling with how to prevent such tragedies and school officials scrambling to help other students deal with the loss.
While suicides overall are down this year in St. Tammany Parish, according to Lynette Savoie, of St. Tammany Outreach for the Prevention of Suicide, the two student deaths have brought the issue back to the fore.
The two male students, ages 17 and 18, killed themselves one day apart in apparently unrelated events.
The deaths led to an outpouring of grief and support on social media, as well as questions about how such events can be prevented.
“The biggest thing is communication,” Savoie said. “People need to pay attention to their loved ones.”
Although a person contemplating suicide may exhibit signs, such as sleeping more than usual or giving away their belongings, suicide also can strike those who appear happy-go-lucky, she said.
“Talk to your kids; talk to your friends,” Savoie said. Often, the best approach is the direct one.
“Ask them point blank,” she said. “Don’t keep a secret if someone tells you they are at risk.”
Celeste Falconer, a board member with the St. Tammany Parish chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, agreed. “We have to make them know that dialogue is key,” she said, adding that sometimes the warning signs can appear to be simply normal adolescent behavior.
In response to this week’s deaths, the parish school system sent crisis counselors to Mandeville High to talk to any distressed students or staff. Similar resources were made available at any other schools where administrators felt it was necessary, a spokeswoman said.
St. Tammany Outreach for the Prevention of Suicide also sent members out to meet with family members and others affected by the deaths, Savoie said.
Many times, the effects of suicide take a toll on those left behind, she said. For that reason, the organization also offers support groups, called SOS groups, for those who were close to suicide victims.
St. Tammany has had a high suicide rate for many years, although it had a slight dip in 2015 from the previous year, Coroner Charles Preston said.
He said the key is talking to people, “getting them past that moment of desperation.”
Preston and other parish officials have been actively pursuing ways not just to bring down the suicide rate but also to address what some have called a mental health crisis in St. Tammany.
A Behavioral Health Task Force and a number of other groups exist to aid those in crisis.
Most visibly, Parish President Pat Brister helped engineer the parish’s purchase of the old Southeast Louisiana Hospital from the state with plans to turn it into a one-stop shop for mental health. A master plan proposal went out for bid recently and could be coming back to parish officials within the next month, a spokesman said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.