SAMOHI — Emotions ran high during a meeting here Tuesday addressing the Santa Monica High School community in the wake of the tragic suicide of freshman Matthew Mezza.
The meeting, led by a panel of suicide-prevention experts, was called to support students and parents in light of the recent alarming incident involving the 14-year-old, who leaped to his death in front of a group of horrified onlookers on Jan. 14.
The meeting was intended to equip parents and students with tools to hopefully prevent future suicides, but a number of parents used the opportunity to air some of the facts and rumors that have swirled around the tragic incident.
One parent, David Gordon, a counselor whose daughters knew Mezza since kindergarten, said he heard Mezza had expressed suicidal thoughts in recent months, adding that he was in counseling at the time of his untimely death. Another parent said rumors had surfaced that the young man was on anti-depressant drugs, a factor she worried may have contributed to the tragedy.
District officials interrupted the second parent, saying such comments during the question and answer period of the event were inappropriate considering the sensitive nature of the situation. Despite those objections, panel member Richard Lieberman, coordinator of the Suicide Prevention Unit of the Los Angeles Unified School District, said that while medication can be helpful, he stressed that drugs alone “won’t work” in preventing suicides. Yet, he did acknowledge that medication along with counseling are often successful in turning around the life of an at-risk youth.
“Unfortunately, suicide is complex and can not be simplified,” Lieberman said. “What we need to do is prevent the next suicide.”
Fellow panelists, including Dr. Elaine Leader, co-founder and executive director of TEENLINE, a suicide prevention hotline, stressed that while parents and students may be confused by Mezza’s suicide, it was no time to point fingers or assign blame.
“Don’t try to understand,” Leader said. Instead, she implored that parents and students should not fear reaching out for help when dealing with a youth that shows signs of suicide.
Leaders’ organization, which is a teen-to-teen call-in service, aims to give young people a place to reach out to when feeling suicidal. TEENLINE is staffed by fellow young people, giving callers the feeling that they aren’t alone. There are currently three Samohi seniors who volunteer for the service co-sponsored by Cedars-Sinai Hospital.
While there are outlets available, panelists agreed that suicide in general is something that isn’t necessarily avoidable, but can be prevented.
Panelist Joel McLafferty, a therapist with Family Services of Santa Monica and father of Samohi graduates, injected a bit of levity into the room when he said that when conventional methods of reaching out to his kids didn’t work he takes a different tact.
“How do I get my kid to talk to me?” McLafferty said. “I text her.”