The year-round residents of Nantucket, the Massachusetts island best-known as an exclusive summer enclave for the wealthy, have been shocked out of a quiet existence by the deaths of three of the local high school's 400 students in less than a year. Two are confirmed suicides, and the most recent death remains under investigation.
In nearby Needham, Mass., four young people committed suicide during an 18-month period from 2004 to 2006. And in neighboring Wellesley, Mass., three members of the class of 2007 committed suicide before last spring's graduation.
An ocean away, 16-year-old Jenna Parry recently became the 17th resident under the age of 28 to commit suicide in Bridgend, Wales, in the past 13 months. Like all of the other young victims from the Welsh town, Parry hanged herself.
Nantucket is the latest of the communities to consider whether an epidemic may be under way — a phenomenon known as a "suicide cluster."
Also known as "suicide contagion," a cluster is defined as multiple suicides in a specific area during a certain time period, and experts say teens and their follow-the-leader tendencies are particularly susceptible.
Determining the root causes of such an outbreak is tricky even for those who have studied the trends, and planning prevention is perhaps even more difficult.
In the midst of tragedy, Nantucket islanders are learning that the way they respond as a community, or don't respond, may be critical to stemming the tide.
The body of 16-year-old William Soverino, a well-liked student-athlete at Nantucket High School, was discovered in his home on Jan. 9. Authorities have not conclusively ruled Soverino's death a suicide, but it made no difference that day. Rumor spread across the island that the Nantucket teen had killed himself, which would make the third suicide at the 400-student high school since February 2007.
Last October, Kathryn Wilder MacLellan, a 16-year-old junior, poisoned herself with carbon monoxide. In February 2007, 15-year-old Vaughn Mitchell Peterson, a freshman, hanged himself. Before Peterson's death, it had been 40 years since a Nantucket High student on the island had committed suicide.
Robert Pellicone, the superintendent of Nantucket schools, says that there is no cluster. He told ABC News that while the three students may have known each other, they had different social circles and faced unique sets of challenges.
"There's no copycat here," Pellicone said. "We've had isolated issues of kids killing themselves. They're unrelated instances."
Regardless, Pellicone and his staff opened the school to suicide experts who offered prevention, screening and crisis management advice to students, parents and staff members after the trio of teen deaths.
One important and difficult lesson the community has taken to heart has been to acknowledge that the students who killed themselves made the wrong choice and should not be celebrated in death the same as a student who dies by other circumstances, such as a tragic car accident, according to Maria Trozzi, the director of the Good Grief Program at the Boston Medical Center and one of the experts called to Nantucket to address the suicides.
"No matter how big the problem is, it's not OK to kill yourself," Trozzi said. "We're not going to plant a tree in the name of a kid who killed himself."