Darien seeks solutions for teen mental health crisis in wake of student deaths: ‘This could happen again’

Darien High School on Thursday, May 26, 2022.

Darien High School on Thursday, May 26, 2022.

Raga Justin / Hearst Connecticut Media

DARIEN — The mood on Darien High School’s campus Monday morning was somber, reflective. Students talked in hushed tones and sat quietly in their classes, trying to make sense of the weekend news that another one of their classmates had died.

The loss of three Darien High School students in the past two months has shaken the town. Two of those students — 17-year-old Matthew McEvoy and 16-year-old Hayden Thorsen — died by suicide in the span of six weeks. Both were talented athletes and had a community of caring friends, according to their obituaries.

Now, leaders and parents are questioning what more the town and school district can do to assess student mental health in an effort to prevent further tragedy.

“We are absolutely concerned, terrified that this could happen again,” Superintendent Alan Addley said. “Not only are you trying to understand where the students are in the grieving process, but you’re also really trying to help them through the mental health process. ... It’s my greatest fear.”

Darien finds itself struggling with how to navigate a burgeoning adolescent mental health crisis. It’s not alone.

National emergency

Even before the pandemic, increasing rates of poor mental health in a young population were becoming more apparent, data shows.

Between 2007 and 2018, suicide rates among youth ages 10-24 in the U.S. increased by 57 percent, according to a 2020 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory warning of the pandemic’s “unprecedented” toll on youth mental health, something local experts echoed in conversations hosted May 23 by the Darien High School Parents Association.

“We really are dealing with a national public health emergency,” said Frank Bartolomeo, the senior clinical adviser for adolescent services at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan. “I don’t think any of us could really say there’s a single factor that’s leading to the amount of anguish and hopelessness that we’re seeing in kids right now.”

Rates of depression, anxiety and feelings of hopelessness are now at all-time highs nationally, according to the CDC.

While the pandemic has almost certainly exacerbated the issue, town residents have spoken out about their belief that the district’s longstanding emphasis on success — academic, athletic and otherwise — is a leading factor in the current crisis.

“Kids have been struggling. It’s a very high-pressure town and there’s a lot of achievement frenzy,” said Krista Carnes, a Darien resident and parent.

During a May 24 school board meeting, chair David Dineen acknowledged the district’s emphasis on achievement had negative implications and said school officials would re-evaluate district culture over the summer.

“Being No. 1 in academics or sports, recognized as leaders in music theater, clubs and councils, having the best facilities all means nothing if the anxiety, stress, pressure and culture to constantly compete and win leads to a breakdown in the mental and physical health of our students and leads to suicides,” Dineen said.

Future conversations

Addley said while the district is immediately concerned with grief counseling in the wake of Thorsen’s May 21 death, conversations about how to approach suicide prevention are imminent.

“There’s no doubt that there’s high expectations. Clearly, there’s no doubt that there are pressures on our young people,” Addley said.

But how to shift away from a community culture of academic and athletic pressure is unclear, Addley said. The administration and school board will be engaging in those conversations in the coming months.

In the meantime, some institutions in town are trying to address the crisis.

In partnership with the Community Fund, the town is working to form a task force exclusively focused on mental health in Darien.

Last week, executive director Laura Downing said the Darien Depot has increased its programming to reflect the crisis and will plan on offering youth in town more opportunities to gather at the facility.

In the community conversation hosted after Thorsen’s death, experts said parents who are fearful about their children’s mental health should not be afraid to broach the topic of death and suicide right now.

Bartolomeo, the expert from Silver Hill, told parents they should approach difficult conversations about mental health without judgment or anxiety. Employing what he called “toxic positivity” — telling children they are better off than others, or that their situation is sure to improve — is counter-productive, he said.

“Ironically enough, a number of kids I work with from affluent communities often feel quite guilty for being in emotional pain because they sometimes don’t feel entitled to be in emotional pain,” Bartolomeo said. “They almost feel worse about feeling badly.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached 24/7 at 800-273-8255.