A father’s heartache drives him to work toward changing the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide. Christopher Coluccio’s son took his own life in September. Now, Coluccio wants to make sure teenagers like his son aren’t forgotten. Newsday’s Shari Einhorn reports.  Credit: Newsday/James Carbone; John Paraskevas

A 14-year-old wrestler and a 16-year-old soccer player in the Bayport-Blue Point school district died by suicide within a five-month span.

Then, around Easter, another suicide occurred in neighboring Patchogue. This time it was an 11-year-old fifth-grader.

It was the fifth suicide within a five-mile radius this school year, according to officials, advocates and families. A 15-year-old boy also in Patchogue-Medford died by suicide. So did another 15-year-old boy from Lake Ronkonkoma.

“It’s heart-wrenching. It’s heartbreaking. It’s the unthinkable,” said Donna Jones, superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford school district. “Suicide at any age is certainly a devastating tragedy, but when you think of it moving down to the elementary level, it kind of takes on a whole other impact.”

The problem is hardly confined to central Suffolk County. It extends on Long Island from Elmont to Montauk and Orient Point, and across the nation, as suicide rates among teenagers and children rise, according to mental health experts.

Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death after unintentional injury among people ages 10 to 34 in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Mental health experts say the numbers are rising due to a confluence of factors: social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic; increased screen time amid the prevalence of electronics; pressures to perform in school and on sports fields; and a lack of resilience that transforms everyday struggles into life-ending crises.

Experts say the time has come to end the taboo against talking openly about suicide and to get young people the help they need.

“It just feels like it’s an epidemic,” said Kathy Rosenthal, senior vice president at Family Service League, a leading nonprofit in Suffolk County that deals with suicide prevention, crisis response and post-suicide counseling for families, schools, businesses and communities. “FSL has seen a tremendous increase in suicides in general, and youth suicides in particular in the last couple of years.”

The number of teenage suicides her group responded to in Suffolk County tripled in 2020 and 2021, going from four to 12, she said. The total number of suicides the group responded to went from 25 to 43. 

And the age of the victims is getting younger, Rosenthal said.

Suicide has long been buried under euphemisms and kept quiet, especially when the victim is a child, experts said.

“There is still a stigma about talking about it,” said Dana Boccio, an associate professor in school psychology at Adelphi University. “A lot of schools are afraid to talk about the issue,” incorrectly believing that bringing it up will lead to more suicides.

If people died in plane crashes every day the way they die by suicide, every plane in the country would be grounded until the problem was solved.

-Donna Altonji, a social worker and crisis intervention specialist at Family Service League

But as suicide rates rise among children on Long Island and nationwide, experts say urgent action is needed.

“It’s terrifying,” said Donna Altonji, a social worker and crisis intervention specialist at Family Service League. “If people died in plane crashes every day the way they die by suicide, every plane in the country would be grounded until the problem was solved.”

57%  The increase in suicide rates for people between the ages of 10 and 24 nationwide between 2007 and 2018, according to the CDC

While there is no complete current count of suicides in the United States or on Long Island, the CDC says suicide rates among people ages 10 to 24 nationwide leapt by more than 57% from 2007 to 2018.

No group appears to be tracking teenage suicide numbers in Nassau County, where Family Service League generally does not work.

Kids, teens face pressures on multiple fronts

Teenagers are under growing pressures, experts say, with bullying exacerbated by social media, and young people comparing themselves to others on everything from Instagram to TikTok.

On social media, people “are posting their best selves,” Rosenthal said. “They’re not posting sadness or anxiety for the most part. They’re posting that everything is great and I have a great life.” Other children compare “themselves to these images that are not necessarily real and that can lead to a sense of hopelessness.”

Kathy Rosenthal, a leader at Family Service League and an...

Kathy Rosenthal, a leader at Family Service League and an expert on teen suicides, inside her office in Bay Shore on June 1. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Experts also cite what they say appears sometimes to be a lack of resilience among young people — the ability to fight through tough times. Too often, they say, teenagers and children think the only solution to ending the pain is suicide.

“We need to help our kids manage expectations, tell them that we all struggle, we all have crises, we all face challenges, and that the pain that they are feeling in this moment may feel like there is nothing that can solve it,” Rosenthal said. “But the only irreversible option is suicide. We really need to help them learn problem-solving skills and help them build resiliency.”

“It’s not that they want to die, necessarily,” she said. “They just can’t see a way out.”

51% The increase in emergency room visits for suicide attempts for adolescent girls in early 2021 compared to early 2019, according to Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the nation’s top physician

In March, the U.S. surgeon general issued a rare public advisory that young people are facing “devastating” mental health problems.

Emergency room visits for suicide attempts rose 51% for adolescent girls in early 2021 compared to the same period in 2019, wrote Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the nation’s top physician.

Christopher Coluccio of Blue Point knows the pain of losing a child to suicide firsthand. His 14-year-old son, also named Christopher, took his life last September.

Christopher Coluccio holds a photo of his son Christopher, on May...

Christopher Coluccio holds a photo of his son Christopher, on May 28 in Ronkonkoma. Credit: Howard Schnapp

He believes his son was affected by many of the stresses mental health experts cite. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when school was shut down for in-person classes, his son was spending hours in the family basement alone playing video games, increasing his isolation, Coluccio said. 

“He wasn’t out with his peers as much. He wasn’t in school making those bonds,” Coluccio said in an interview with Newsday. “You come home, you're sitting on a screen all day, you go down into the basement, you're sitting on a screen."

Coluccio said he tried to get his son out of the pattern, but he was also busy with his own work. 

“There is some parenting by electronics going on by all of us,” he said.

When classes and sports finally resumed, basketball, lacrosse and other sports were permitted, but not young Christopher’s passion of wrestling, Coluccio said.

“He didn’t get to go back to the sport that was one of his outlets,” he said. “I think it compounded all of the other things that were going on, and it didn’t get him out socializing, especially with friends of his age group."

Then last September, he had a rough transition to Bayport-Blue Point High School in ninth grade, since "his core group of friends were a year behind him," Coluccio said. “Him being in high school and them being still in middle school was probably difficult. Maybe he felt alone or disconnected."

I think he was very good at telling us what we wanted to hear.

-Christopher Coluccio, of Blue Point, speaking about his son, Christopher

Yet his son — like many children experiencing mental health crises — "could hide stuff very well," Coluccuio said. “I think he was very good at telling us what we wanted to hear."

Two days before his son died by suicide, the two went golfing and seemed to have a good time, he said.

Coluccio has one regret in dealing with his son’s crisis: When Christopher started harming himself by cutting, his family talked to him about it in-depth and thought the problem was resolved. In retrospect, he wishes he had gotten his son psychological counseling or therapy.

“Even with the cutting and stuff, the last thing I ever thought was that my kid was suicidal,” Coluccio said. “We thought we were smart enough or good enough to take care of that, and that we had it beat. I really thought it was just a stage. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.”

He noted that other factors stressing out children might be surprising: In a survey of Bayport-Blue Point students conducted by Family Service League, the top concerns listed were grades, homework and worries about their future — before bullying, social media, drugs and alcohol.

“You’re talking about middle schoolers that are worrying about — at the age of 11, 12, 13 — worrying about what their future is going to be like,” he said. 

Some experts including Altonji believe these worries come from increasing pressures being placed on children: taking multiple college-level AP courses in high school, for instance, or taking Regents-level math courses generally meant for high school as early as sixth grade. Many children also feel pressured to get into a top college — their "dream school."

Even sports have become more pressurized, according to experts. 

Mental health experts stress that teenage suicide often happens in good families who were taking steps to help their children. Sometimes, nothing can be done to prevent suicide, they say.

“When somebody really has decided to take their life, they’re probably not going to reach out for help. They won’t give signs,” Rosenthal said. “Because they’ve made that decision and they often actually look like they’re relieved and happier, lighter.”

The issue of mental health is getting attention nationwide, as prominent professional athletes talk openly about their struggles and depression. They include NBA star Kevin Love, tennis star Naomi Osaka, and gymnast Simone Biles, who dropped out in the middle of the Summer Olympics last year.

The four-time gold medalist had qualified for four finals, but after one rotation in the team finals she withdrew, citing her mental health as her performance faltered. "I’m still struggling with some things,” Biles said after dropping out. Before the competition, she had written on social media: “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.”

Others have succumbed to their struggles.

In February, former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst jumped off a high-rise building in Manhattan, killing herself, according to the NYPD. Days later, Stanford University women’s soccer goalie Katie Meyer took her life in her dorm room. She was the first of at least five elite college athletes to die by suicide within two months. On New Year’s Eve 2020, Thomas Raskin, the son of Rep. Jamie Raskin and a second-year student at Harvard Law School, died by suicide at the age of 25.

LIer shares her story

Sam Desmond almost joined that list.

Sam Desmond, of Bayport, stands inside Blue Point Preserve on June...

Sam Desmond, of Bayport, stands inside Blue Point Preserve on June 3. Desmond attempted suicide twice as a young woman. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

She was 18 and had just graduated in 2003 as the salutatorian from Deer Park High School, where her classmates voted her “most intelligent” and “most likely to succeed.” She was enrolled in an honors program at CUNY, with dreams of becoming a lawyer.

One morning, while driving to the LIRR station to commute into college, she tried to kill herself. 

Desmond told Newsday the pressure to succeed and overachieve, along with existing mental health problems, had gotten to her. Everybody else in the honors program was a valedictorian or salutatorian, too.

“All of a sudden, I didn’t feel special. I wasn’t as dazzling because everybody else had the same thing,” she recalled. “If I’m not the unquestionable best, or I’m not someone to be envied, or someone you can brag about, then there’s no point in me living.”

Desmond survived because she was wearing her seat belt. She survived another attempt four years later, at 22, she said.

Today, Desmond, 36, has stabilized her life and is sharing her lessons. A reporter at The Suffolk County News, she wrote a first-person story about her own attempts after the Bayport-Blue Point community was shaken by the two suicides.

While schools can be part of the solution, she wrote, communities also must create an environment where people feel free to discuss their struggles.

“You can find that tight-knit, that Mayberry feeling, in so many communities on Long Island,” Desmond said. “But to kind of keep that perfect picture, sometimes it means we don’t address everything that we should.”

Advocates: Schools can do more

Some advocates contend many schools are not doing enough to deal with the crisis.

“I can count on one hand the number of schools we’ve been working with,” said Ann Morrison, who has served as Long Island director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for six years.

Schools are afraid to talk about it … But not discussing it does not stop it from happening.

Ann Morrison, Long Island director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

“It’s just not a priority. Schools are afraid to talk about it,” she said. “But not discussing it does not stop it from happening.”

Some districts are taking an active approach. Bayport-Blue Point is hosting Family Service League workshops for parents and students. Patchogue-Medford is expanding a suicide awareness and prevention program. Sachem is partnering with Northwell Health for mental health services for students, hiring more social workers, and even bringing therapy dogs into its high schools.

Altonji of Family Service League said a systemic approach is needed. Schools along with families, churches and even sports leagues must get the word out that every kid is valuable — and help is available when they struggle.

“I really think the work has to start with kids when they’re very young,” she said. “We start talking to kids about drugs when they are 4 or 5 years old, even younger sometimes. This should be an ongoing issue that is addressed not just once a month or not just once a year, but on a daily basis.”

Coluccio has founded an organization in his son’s honor, a “Good Grief” group aimed at building something positive out of a parent’s worst nightmare. Besides remembering Christopher, the group tries to educate the public about suicide and support people who are struggling.

Robyn Berger-Gaston of Family Service League said her group is expanding a program that trains kids in what to do if one of their friends gives signs they are suicidal. Often their peers are the only ones they may confide in, she said.

“We’ve seen it before, where families are completely, completely blindsided,” she said. “They had great relationships with their kids. They talked to their kids. Their kids talked to them. The kids just didn’t share everything.”

Rosenthal said she hopes the efforts reach struggling young people before it’s too late.

“There are so many things to try, to get help,” she said, “before you make that decision that’s irreversible.”

RESOURCES

If you are having thoughts of suicide, contact one of these numbers immediately for help:

Family Service League — 24/7 hotline: 631-952-3333

Response Crisis Center — 24/7 suicide hotline: 631-751-7500

The Long Island Crisis Center in Bellmore — 24/7 crisis hotline: 516-679-1111

National Suicide Hotline — 1-800-273-8255 (to be 988 by July 16)

Crisis Text Line: Text TALK to 741741

Family Service League Crisis Action Team and Joe’s Project — 1-888-FSL-CCAT (1-888-375-2228)