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Celebrity deaths lead to frank discussions


Celebrity deaths lead to frank discussions

By Judy D’Mello | June 21, 2018 – 3:51pm

In an era in which Facebook has made “friend” into a verb, when we can often confuse the ambient intimacy of an online world with the authentic intimacy of personal relationships, suicide rates in America have increased — by 25 percent since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The deaths of the fashion designer Kate Spade and the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, both of whom committed suicide earlier this month, are the latest markers of what is being called a national public health crisis. In a recent article, The New York Times stated that suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and nearly 45,000 Americans killed themselves in 2016, twice the number of homicide deaths.

But before the celebrity suicides thrust the issue into the spotlight, the South Fork had already suffered a spate of suicides among high schoolers between 2009 and 2013. Those were followed in 2014 by Tyler Valcich, then 20, who committed suicide at home in Montauk, and by Matthew Lester, who took his own life in 2017 at the age of 17.

“This area in Long Island has been identified as a potential for cluster suicides,” said Cynthia McKelvey, an education specialist who works for the Family Service League in East Hampton, a social service agency that provides emotional and physical aid to people in crisis.

Recently, under pressure to do more for the South Fork’s young who are struggling with depression, and to de­stigmatize the illness, schools and government agencies have stepped up their efforts. Regular training sessions for young adults have been held through SafeTALK, a half-day training program designed to help people recognize warning signs and to connect those in crisis with community resources and personnel trained in suicide intervention.

Ms. McKelvey also spearheads the Tyler Project, a nonprofit initiative established by Tyler’s family to increase and improve coordination and delivery of mental health services for students, young adults, and families here.

As a result of a brainstorming session a few years ago among the Family Ser­vice League, Long Island Communities of Practice, the Youth Power organization, and the New York State Office of Mental Health, Ms. McKelvey formed the East End Chat and Chill program, open to anyone between the ages of 15 and 30.

“Mostly, we have young adults from 18 to 30 years,” she said. The group meets twice a month, often around a bonfire on the beach for two to three hours. There is always a social worker present, a free meal, and usually a speaker to discuss a recreational topic such as fishing, photography, yoga — interests that participants might like to explore.

But at its core, these fireside chats act as a successful therapy group for young adults who are either in crisis mode themselves or have friends going through severe depression and need the tools to help them.

The group met a week after the two celebrity suicides, and the conversation, Ms. McKelvey said, largely revolved around the fact that no one, not even those enjoying worldly success and with “dream profiles,” is immune to suffering from depression.

“They even brought up Robin Williams,” she said, and wondered how someone so funny could be so unhappy. “I was glad we had that meeting. It created a meaningful conversation and we went over the steps to take and the number for the national hotline, and the number to text, and made sure that everybody always has those numbers handy.”

For Valinda Miller Valcich, Tyler’s mother, who lives in Montauk with her husband, Mitchell (Mickey) Valcich, the owner of Mickey’s Carting and Mickey’s Montauk Mowing, the question Why? was all she could ask after hearing about the two high-profile suicides. Her mission, she said, remains to have more therapy available for kids, especially those who cannot afford the usual $250-an-hour sessions.

On Oct. 7 in Amagansett, the Tyler Project will host the fifth annual Tyler Valcich Car Show, which will include raffles, food and drinks, and live music in the hope of raising money to provide more services and increase awareness of this mental health issue.

Like Ms. Miller Valcich, the pain of prematurely losing a son is etched on Dana Lester’s face. His name, Matthew, is also etched on her left arm — a tattoo she got after he committed suicide on Martin Luther King’s Birthday in 2017.

Sitting outside White’s Apothecary in East Hampton, where she works, Ms. Lester spoke about her constant struggle to live without her son and her attempts to make sense of what happened.

Every experience of grief is unique, but an emerging body of research has begun to consider the distinct challenges faced by those who have lost loved ones through suicide. Studies have found that the experience of suicide is likely to prompt those left alive to question their own sense of purpose, often leading to a particularly difficult mixture of grief, anger, blame, relief, and a search for answers.

“It’s very painful to think that I did not recognize the signs,” Ms. Lester said, and it seemed clear that most of her reckoning swirls around an internal struggle with feeling that she could have done more.

“I had noticed a change in him. But he was a teenager . . .” she said, her voice trailing off. Then, she added, “He came to me and said, ‘I have friends, I have a girlfriend, I’m doing well at school, but I still feel sad.’ ” Matthew received counseling through the Family Service League for about six months and had even started on medication about three weeks before his suicide.

While her husband and daughter went into counseling following his death, Ms. Lester did not. “I just want my son back and no amount of counseling will bring him back,” she said.

Bettina Volz, a clinical psychologist in Amagansett, firmly believes that for any significant change to occur, the stigma of mental illness, which includes depression and suicide, must be challenged.

“Clinical depression, which can lead to suicide, is a disease just like diabetes,” she said. “It needs to be treated.”

In her experience of working with young people in the grip of depression, what they want most is to talk to someone and for someone to listen. In a way, it comes back to technology and a generation of young people who can too often be imprisoned by their phones even in crowded cities and at noisy parties. When someone is in the depths of depression, doctors continue to stress, engaging in conversation and sharing life’s challenges with someone who cares can sometimes be a lifesaver.

“Feeling connected to even just a few people can make a huge difference,” Dr. Volz said, offering some basic advice for anyone who has noticed a family member or friend in crisis. “Talk therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and medication,” she pointed out, are available treatments designed to increase emotional and cognitive regulation in depressed people by showing them the triggers that lead to reactive states.

As for the warning signs, she said, isolation is usually the most glaring. Other signs are a change in personality, such as no longer wanting to engage with others, sleeplessness, or an inability to find pleasure in anything. “And giving away treasured objects,” she added. “That’s usually a sign of someone contemplating suicide.”

Often, she said, simply checking in with a loved one and asking, “Hey, how bad is it?” could make all the difference. It gives a person struggling with depression a chance to admit to the illness, and accepting it is the first step toward seeking treatment and resolving it.

Dr. Volz was quick to acknowledge, however, that people suffering from depression can be masters at disguising their emotions and often present convincing reasons for dissociating themselves from friends and loved ones. Many of those with untreated depression lack friends because the illness saps the vitality that friendship requires and immures its victims in an impenetrable shield, making it hard for them to speak or hear words of comfort.


If You Need Help

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be called at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The National Institute of Mental Health website is

The Crisis Text Line, inspired by teenagers’ attachment to texting but open to people of all ages, provides free assistance to anyone who texts “help” to 741-741. Its website is

On the South Fork, the Family Ser­vice League can be reached at 631-427-3700 for critical or immediate help.

About the Author

Judy D’Mello

Education reporter