Proviso East High School is grieving the deaths by suicide of two young students over recent weeks. Both 15, both sophomores, both Maywoodians, the deaths of these youngsters are a moment for our schools and our community to find that fragile place in talking openly, respectfully, honestly about mental health, about suicide.
Finally, the blinders, the stigma are coming off about mental illness. We’ve spent so much energy not talking about mental health, about suicide, so much energy keeping that door tightly shut, furthering the isolation people and families feel in very hard times, that we have made honest talk nearly impossible.
This week District 209 is walking that line of candor and privacy, light and stigma. And we have great admiration for the path this district is taking.
“We are trying to let students know that we love them,” said Ned Wagner, president of the Proviso Township High Schools board of education. It is a message that is elemental: You are loved. You belong. You are known. We are here for you.
So powerful. So positive. So different from the secrecy, the veiling of suicide in our society.
The district has been proactive in acknowledging the truth and pain in these deaths. And, of course, the worry is of suicide clusters, that one suicide begets the next. There is evidence that suicide can be seen as somehow permission-based. The alternative, and it seems to be the ascendant view, is that honesty and acknowledgement may be more powerful.
Teens and adults who feel so alone that suicide becomes viable need to hear they are not alone. Not alone in their disconnection. Not alone because there are people — family, friends, fellow students, social workers, even casual acquaintances — who are there to recognize their pain and to reach out directly to them. Even when it is awkward.
We’ve seen this now among the Proviso school districts, which Jesse Rodriguez, the superintendent, calls the “foundation districts,” which are stepping up and offering the support of their own social workers.
Forest Park’s District 91 elementary schools sent three of its social workers to East to help out. Supt. Louis Cavallo said it was the first time in his memory that such resources have been shared.
“When I learned that there were youth in crisis at D209 and the district needed assistance, of course I offered our support. We are ‘One Proviso’ and the well-being of all our youth is important to me and to the community,” said Cavallo.
From pain can come blessings. The recognition that we are One Proviso in support of our children on days of wonder and on days of loss is what makes community. This school district has lessons to teach us.