BLOOMFIELD, NJ — The fourth annual Walk To Fight Suicide, sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, was held at Brookdale Park on Saturday, Sept. 15. The purpose of the event was to dispel the shame and secrecy surrounding the death of a loved one, or anyone, by their own hands.
The walk was initiated four years ago by Lisa DeFabbi and Dina DeFabrizio, sister and daughter, respectively, of Bloomfield Police Department Officer Vincent DeFabrizio. DeFabrizio took his own life in March 2014. DeFabbi said about 100 people attended the event that first year and she estimated 400 arrived this year. Pre-registrations were about 300 people with more signing up the morning of the walk.
“Suicide is swept under the rug,” she said.
The largest number of walkers were Bloomfield residents and many were Bloomfield High School students. The reason for this are intimately felt tragedies. Three times during the past two years the Broad Street school experienced a suicide within its “family.” Two students, a boy and a girl, and an adult woman affiliated with the school took their own lives during that time. Some of the Bloomfield walkers wore a button with the names of these individuals handwritten on it.
“Every year it seems we have one big group,” DeFabbi said.
In 2017, she said there were many walkers from Nutley because a girl from that town had taken her own life.
Both DeFabbi and Paula Field, the chairwoman for the NJ Chapter of AFSP, said mental health issues underlie many suicides with bipolar disorders a primary reason.
“Kids see that things are happening in their own schools,” Field said. “You have to start the conversation.”
The two crisis counselors for BHS, Heather Cannon and Cindy Sherman, walked the 1 ½-mile loop around the park. Both started at their present positions in September 2017.
“We’re so busy,” Cannon said. “Every school district should have a licensed mental health professional on staff.”
Cannon and Sherman had gone to the gym classes at their school and introduced themselves to the students. And students, they said, have come to them for the reasons any high schooler might experience. Sometimes it’s because their boyfriend or girlfriend broke up with them in the hallway between classes, or they are applying to college and are “stressed out” by it. But sometimes they need to talk to someone because they are having suicidal thoughts. If they are thinking about suicide, Cannon said the student is assessed and a course of action is determined. Always the parents are notified. If the student poses a risk to themselves, they are sent to a hospital.
“Last year we sent over 30 students to the hospital,” Sherman said.
Cannon said 872 students came in for crisis counseling last year.
“Out of a school of 2,000 students, that is an amazing number,” she said, indicating a considerable number of BHS students seek crisis counseling. “But we’re always concerned. Our job is prevention. How do we get ahead of it? We are there 24/7.”
Students have also provided her with copies, or screenshots, of troubling messages posted on social media by students.
“We have found out about possible suicides because of social media,” she said. “That’s happened a few times and we intervened.”
Getting the word out about the annual walk, and participating in it, is part of the way to improve suicide prevention, according to Cannon.
“We want to erase the stigma,” she said. “And over the summer, we put up a crisis website.”
The school is also launching a student advocacy group for mental health where students can talk about personal issues with other students.
“We are trying to recruit a group of students to promote positive health,” Cannon said. “We’re looking for kids that are committed and care. Kids listen to kids more than they do to us.”
She hopes word-of-mouth among the students will get the attention she wants.
“It’s a brand new things,” she said. “It’ll take about a year to get off the ground.”
The school is also going to have a crisis app. Cannon said BHS may be the first school to have one dedicated to crisis counseling. It is called “Just In Case” and will provide information on the problems students confront, including drugs and sexual assault.
In a Monday, Sept. 17 email to this newspaper, BHS Principal Chris Jennings said that the Bloomfield community has seen the impact of suicide.
“Our crisis counselors are doing a great job of bringing the conversation on mental health out of the darkness,” he said. “We want our school to be a safe place where every student and adult knows they can talk to someone who will help them through tough times and connect them to the appropriate resources. From the numbers of students and staff members who participated or donated to this walk, it is clear that message is getting out there.”
According to Jennings, the BHS enrollment on Monday, Sept. 17, was 1,947 students.
Cannon said the school was making a determined effort this year about student mental health issues. The BHS staff, she added, contributed $4,920 to the walk to honor the three Bloomfield residents who took their own lives.
“Next year,” Sherman said pointing her button, “we don’t want any names on this,”