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Youths step up to fight suicide

Event raises funds for Samaritans

Maddie Benzer, 18, and Camden Green, 9, danced at the “Make Noise to Save a Life’’ event at the House of Blues last night. Maddie Benzer, 18, and Camden Green, 9, danced at the “Make Noise to Save a Life’’ event at the House of Blues last night. (Matthew J. Lee/ Globe Staff)
By Stewart Bishop
Globe Correspondent / December 24, 2010

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After a classmate took her own life in November last year, Kathleen Zhu, like many others at Belmont High School, was in disbelief.

“I thought she had it all,’’ Zhu said. “She was smart, she was going to apply to Brown [University], and she was an incredibly amazing dancer with lots of friends, and I just didn’t think that it could have been her.’’

Looking for a way to help others who might be at risk for suicide, 17-year-old Zhu volunteered at a local suicide prevention organization, Samaritans, answering calls on the Samariteen hotline, which is dedicated to the prevention of suicide among teenagers.

“I just didn’t want something like this to happen to anyone else,’’ Zhu said. “So I figured the most affirmative thing that I could do personally was join Samaritans.’’

Zhu and a crowd of several hundred people, mostly teenagers and 20-somethings, gathered at the House of Blues on Lansdowne Street last night to dance, raise money for the Samaritans, and bring light to a topic that organizers say is too often left in the shadows.

Scores of people dressed in brightly colored clothing crowded the dance floor as deejays played and some dancers did flips and other elaborate moves at the “Make Noise to Save a Life’’ event.

Samaritans development manager Garrett Owen said he hoped funds raised by the event would help to expand his group’s operations, which include a 24-hour suicide hotline that averages more than 130,000 calls per year, as well as the Samariteen help line, grief support services, and several outreach and educational programs.

Owen said one of the biggest challenges in suicide prevention is to get people to talk about it openly.

“It’s an issue that’s so stigmatized and people don’t want to talk about [it] because they’re afraid they may be judged for bringing such a sensitive issue up,’’ Owen said. “If people are talking about this event and really making noise about it, hopefully that will make a difference.’’

Owen encouraged those who suspect someone close to them may be considering suicide to speak with the person.

“Just to ask them about it, just to bring it up. One of the myths about suicide is that if you mention the word suicide to someone who might be suicidal, you’re going to plant the idea in their head or push them over the edge,’’ Owen said. “The truth of the matter is, people who may be considering suicide want to talk about it, they just don’t know how to. Just to listen, just be there for them, and ask them how they’re doing.’’

Every year, about 500 people across the state commit suicide. Approximately 50 of them are between the ages of 15 and 24, according to state statistics. Numbers on teenage suicides alone were not available.

One of the event’s chief coordinators, Debbie DiMasi, wife of former Massachusetts House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, said she was drawn to the cause of suicide prevention after the suicides of her brother, an Army and French Foreign Legion veteran, in 2006; a close friend of her daughter’s only days later; and that of her niece in 2008.

“Initially it was like someone threw a grenade into our family,’’ she said.

DiMasi said she hoped the event would raise awareness about mental health issues and encourage a greater understanding about the widespread problem of mental health and suicide that so often goes unmentioned in society.

“It is so important to bring psychiatric illness out of the shadows and into the light and make it OK to talk about,’’ DiMasi said. “If we reduce the stigma by doing things like this and having teenagers come together who have all been touched in one way or another whether by suicide or depression, it’s key to stopping people from doing something to themselves because they do suffer in silence.’’

Organizers called the event a success, with over 1,100 tickets sold and the event raising $60,000 for Samaritans.

Stewart Bishop can be reached at sbishop@globe.com.