On a warm summer night earlier this month, hundreds of people gathered in a park, holding candles in silence as they remembered six local young people who died by suicide.
The next day, Megan Bruton learned that Downingtown had lost a seventh — its third student suicide in less than three months.
“All of us just felt like we got the wind kicked out of us again,” said Bruton, a parent who organized the June 6 vigil.
As it grieves, Downingtown is grappling with how to move forward — and show struggling teens that suicide is preventable. Parents and students have circulated petitions and social media posts demanding the school district improve its mental health education and resources. Signs declaring “You Are Enough” have sprung up on lawns, a call for more open conversations about a topic some say is too stigmatized.
“People are very distraught,” said Josh Maxwell, a Chester County commissioner and former Downingtown mayor. “A lot of folks have been praying and crying about families and kids they may have never met. It certainly has the entire community really focused on this.”
Some see the latest spate of suicides as part of a wave that began three years ago in the affluent suburban school district, which sprawls across eight municipalities in central Chester County. In 2018 and 2019, two recent graduates and two current students died by suicide.
“There’s just been too many,” said Rachel Rondinelli, whose 14-year-old sister Rose died by suicide in 2018. “At this point, everyone has a connection with one of these kids. I think that’s why there’s such an outcry now.”
The emotional outpouring has also fueled fears about giving suicide too much attention. Learning about yet another right after the vigil made Bruton think: “Did we do something wrong?”
A local pastor reassured her they did not.
Suicide contagion — the phenomenon when one self-killing or outsize attention to it sparks more — is relatively rare, accounting for 1% to 5% of deaths. But experts say teenagers tend to be susceptible.
“It’s a very delicate balance here between honoring people we’ve lost, honoring people’s grief … and addressing the right things,” said Amanda Blue, director of the Chester County Suicide Prevention Task Force.
“I understand wholeheartedly where the anger and frustration comes from,” said Blue, who lost her husband to suicide in 2008, and her son four years later when he was a 14-year-old freshman at Downingtown STEM Academy. But suicide is complex, she said, and “none of us get the luxury of pointing at one thing” as the problem.
Suicides among young people have been a mounting concern for years. National data show a rise over the last decade, a trend mirrored in Pennsylvania, where the suicide rate among 10- to 19-year-olds grew by 63% between 2007-2009 and 2017-2019. Among all Pennsylvanians, the increase was 29%.
In Chester County, suicides of 10- to 19-year-olds have fluctuated over the last decade, ranging from one to five a year, according to state data.
The county logged four suicides so far this year of people under 21 as of May 31 — including two Downingtown West students who died in April and May, but not a former student in the district who died June 6.
The pandemic’s toll on teens’ mental health particularly concerns parents and community leaders. Though data so far have not shown a rise in suicide rates, a study last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts among adolescent girls increased by 50% during the pandemic. (Experts note the CDC data also included some self-harm incidents, which are not necessarily suicide attempts.)
Blue noted a “pretty dramatic” increase in talk line and crisis calls in Chester County.
“It’s been kind of our fear: Is there going to be the shoe that drops after the fact?” Blue said. She said Downingtown youth are “already in a fragile state.”
Lalitha Shanmugasundaram, who graduated from Downingtown STEM in 2020, recalled the “heavy sadness” after suicides her junior year.
“We really thought after that, the district would change,” said Shanmugasundaram, who struggled after being diagnosed with depression and anxiety in eighth grade.
A petition signed by more than 2,100 people and started by Jennifer Moore, whose son Rhyland McCullough, 14, died by suicide in April, says the district is “not equipped to handle the emotional and mental health of the student body nor its faculty.”
“So much of their lives are wrapped up in school. And they’re constantly receiving this message: ‘You need to be doing your best right now,’” said Moore, who has been talking to students after her son’s death. She wants the district “to recognize there is a problem. Not talking about it is not going to fix it.”
Downingtown Area School District spokesperson Jennifer Shealy said this year’s suicides were “absolutely devastating.”
“It is going to take the support of our entire community to wrap our collective arms around our children, and we are grateful to see how the entire DASD community and local Chester County districts have banded together in support of our students,” Shealy said in a statement. “We are facing a national epidemic and we will remain vigilant in protecting and supporting our school community.”
The district has placed more focus on mental health since 2018, incorporating lessons into seventh- through ninth-grade health classes, implementing suicide screening, and providing prevention training to ninth-graders. Administrators say they added staff and brought in specialists to meet with students individually and in small groups after the recent suicides.
Schools play an important role in suicide prevention, along with parents and other community members, said Kelly Green, a senior researcher at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.
“A community coming together and talking about suicide openly in a safe way is protective,” Green said. “The most important thing is how we talk about it” — to not romanticize the deaths or suggest suicide is a normal response to stress.
At the June 6 vigil, more than 500 students and parents sat on blankets and lawn chairs in a public park as they listened to six girls and young women talk about the friends and family they lost to suicide.
“Losing my brother has opened my eyes to the massive world of what mental health really is,” said Grace Carey. Her younger brother Kyle graduated from Downingtown East in 2017 and died by suicide in 2018 while attending Oklahoma University. Although she didn’t recognize that her brother was struggling, Carey now sees that there were signs.
Schools “should be teaching us how to talk to our friends about mental health and stigma,” she said. “We live in a society that stigmatizes mental health, but mourns suicide.”
Bruton, the parent organizer, hopes to steer the groundswell of support into action.
“The kids are talking about it online,” she said. Adults need “to give them that space, so we can hear.”
If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
Staff writer Aparna Nathan contributed to this article.