Two years ago, the Mattituck High School community was shaken up by the suicide of one of their students. The district’s counselors banded together to counsel the friends of the girl who died, and realized in the process that they didn’t have proactive learning tools in place to help students and parents learn to recognize the symptoms of psychological issues and help students in need.
This week, the school brought in Dr. Xavier Amador, an internationally recognized clinical psychologist who lives locally and volunteered to help students and parents learn to assist adolescents in recognizing the symptoms of psychological illnesses. Dr. Amador met with tenth, eleventh and twelfth graders at an assembly on Wednesday, and gave a presentation to parents Thursday evening.
“The kids were immediately uncomfortable that they were going to be talking about these things, but as it went on, you could tell they felt good that we were going to talk about it,” said Mattituck Jr./Sr. High School Principal Shawn Petretti of the morning assembly.
Mr. Petretti added that the district has a student counselor on campus, Andrea Nydegger, who works for Eastern Suffolk BOCES and has a higher level of confidentiality than counselors who work directly for the district.
“It’s a small community, and it makes people hesitant to come forward,” he said. “This is not something we talk about often, but it’s a very real problem. A lot of times parents don’t want to deal with it. Children today are growing up in an entirely different world than we grew up in. These are important things.”
In his talk with parents, Dr. Amador outlined the symptoms of schizophrenia, clinical depression and bipolar disorder. He told attendees that most people who receive treatment for these illnesses early on can live full, productive lives, while people who aren’t treated often succumb to their disease and are more likely to end up committing suicide.
He urged parents to be empathetic and earn the trust of children and adolescents who are in emotional pain, in part because it is easier to convince people to seek treatment if the advice comes from someone they trust.
That’s often not an easy task, he said, recounting the seven years it took him to convince his brother Henry, who had schizophrenia, to seek treatment.
Dr. Amador said there is a good deal of evidence linking marijuana usage to schizophrenia. He urged parents who know adolescents who are using marijuana to get more information on the dangers from the National Alliance on Mental Illness website.
Worldwide, he said, 1 percent of people suffer from schizophrenia, which “is more common than most forms of cancer,” he said. Of that 1 percent, one in 10 ends up committing suicide.
“Most of those people were not in treatment,” he said.
Few schizophrenics are violent, he said, but the media’s focus on those who are: Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Jared Loughner, who killed six people and critically injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords this January, makes schizophrenia the most stigmatized illness.
“These are ‘no fault’ brain disorders,” he said. “People get better with each of these diseases.”
Far more people have suffered clinical depression, said the doctor, who added that people can be in the midst of a clinical depression without knowing they’re depressed. He had been suffering through a clinical depression himself, while writing a book about depression, and did not know he was ill until a friend asked him some diagnostic questions.
Among the symptoms of clinical depression, he said, were withdrawal from usual social interactions, a loss of interest in everything, difficulty concentrating, thoughts of death, not sleeping and losing or gaining weight. If a combination of these symptoms persisted for more than two weeks, he said, the person is most likely clinically depressed.
Dr. Amador said that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors like Prozac are safe and effective, but cognitive therapy is also a great help.
“The more people who talk about it, the better” he said. “You need to work with someone to develop good thinking habits.”
Dr. Amador said that, in his discussions with Mattituck students Wednesday mornings, many students told him that they wouldn’t feel comfortable asking their friends if they were feeling suicidal, in part because they were afraid they would put the idea of suicide in their friend’s heads. He said that it was unlikely anyone could convince a friend to commit suicide by empathizing with them.
“Ask another question, like ‘do you wish you were dead,’” he said. “People will fess up if you aren’t judging them.”
“Look for what you can empathize with and where you can agree,” he said. “Be gentle.”