March 20, 2008 -- 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.
Teen Suicides Rock Nantucket
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."
That is a lesson Pellicone has come to accept.
"You don't memorialize a suicide. It makes the person more important than he and she is," he said. "We're not hiding from it. We're trying to learn from it every day."
Students Saddened, United
Katie McInerney is the editor of the Nantucket High School student newspaper, Veritas. She was also a close friend to Will Soverino and classmate to Kathryn Wilder MacLellan, and she knew freshman Vaughn Peterson.
McInerney said she understands why the school's administration has brought in so many counselors, but she said different students cope with the deaths in distinct ways.
"I think students were really sad," McInerney told ABC News. "But they're also really confused. It's difficult for the younger students who haven't been around it, but it's difficult for the older students who have been around it as well."
She said she understands why people may want to consider the Nantucket deaths a cluster, but also challenged the stigma that goes along with that designation.
"It's hard to hear someone call Nantucket a suicide cluster like there's something wrong with us," she said. "There's nothing wrong with us. It could happen anywhere."
Madelyn Gould, a professor in child psychiatry and public health at Columbia University and expert on suicide clusters, said the island suicides may meet the term's scientific definition — particularly if authorities rule Soverino's death a suicide.
"Having three young people kill themselves within a year in a community of this size really points to it being a suicide cluster," she said.
'A Young Person's Phenomenon'
Suicide clusters occur when the number of people who kill themselves in a specific time period and geographic area surpasses the typical suicide rate and leaves a community gripped by fear.
In 2004, suicide was the third-leading cause of death in the 15-24 age group in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accounting for about 10 deaths for every 100,000 people. Three suicides out of 400 students would far exceed that rate.
In her research, Gould identified more than 50 instances of suicide clusters in the United States between 1988 and 1996. The examples ranged from three deaths to 11 deaths. She also analyzed how local media coverage of a cluster might propel additional suicides — a delicate issue but one suicide experts say can happen.
"It's definitely a young person's phenomenon," Gould said, explaining that statistically teens are more likely to respond to a suicide with a suicide. "When someone dies in a community, what we think is that it may present suicide as another way to cope, certainly a maladaptive way to cope, but another way to cope."
Teenagers are more prone to suicide clusters just as they are typically more easily influenced by social trends and fads, Gould said, adding that she fears the rise of Internet use may accentuate a trend. While previous suicides may not be the sole factor pushing a teen to take his or her own life, they may serve as a final straw.
Welsh authorities have said that there is no evidence of a "suicide pact" among those who killed themselves in Bridgend. They've criticized "sensational" reporting, saying it has glamorized the deaths, according to The Associated Press.
The paranoia over the epidemic in Bridgend is so significant that an anti-suicide squad took a "Don't do it" message to the streets. A memorial Web site chose to remove tribute pages set up to honor the young people who killed themselves out of fear that they may be celebrating the deaths and potentially adding to the cluster.
After the Needham, Mass., incidents, local officials formed a suicide prevention coalition that organized grief counseling sessions for students, parents and faculty, and offered weekly counseling services to 50 students who were considered at-risk for depression.
It's a model that Nantucket, located 30 miles off the Massachusetts coast, could look to for guidance.
Parents More Attentive
While each suicide has its own set of circumstances, parents of teens who killed themselves in Nantucket and South Wales have cited isolation as a possible motivator.
On Nantucket, where a summer population topping 55,000 drops to just 10,000 and teens are literally locked in by the ocean, the Boys & Girls Club has extended its hours to accommodate students who may be reeling from a long, hard winter.
McInerney's mother Phyllis McInerney, the club's executive director, described the remarkable resilience of Nantucket students coping with the string of deaths.
"The students are talking about it a lot," she said. "They're kind of mad. There's a lot of anger, but I think that anger is being vented."
Katie McInerney acknowledged a heightened sense of awareness among parents, but she knows that moving forward in the grieving process is going to take time. "Not a day goes by when in my mind I don't think about Will and Kate and Vaughn," she said.