A Note from the Counseling Team

A Note from the Counseling Team

July 7, 2023

Dear Parents and Guardians,

As a school community, we are devastated by the unimaginable loss of Donald (Trey) Brown III. During this difficult time, we want to assure you that our counselors and deans are here to support you and your children. We are committed to providing the necessary assistance and sharing valuable resources to help navigate the challenges ahead. In the coming weeks, you will receive from school leadership a more comprehensive outline of the school’s response to the recent tragedies in our community and our focus on student mental health and well-being in every aspect of student experience.

Meanwhile, because partnership with families is essential in attending to the mental health of adolescents, we would like to offer you a guide for engaging in important conversations about suicide, risk factors, possible reactions your children might display, and how to recognize warning signs of suicidal ideation. It is our hope that this guide will equip you with the knowledge and tools to address this sensitive topic with your children.

A Guide for Conversations About Suicide

  1. Express your concern: Address the misconception that discussing suicide may implant the idea. By openly expressing your concerns, you send a powerful message that you care and are willing to discuss suicide honestly.
  2. Really listen: Resist the urge to dismiss upsetting conversations by saying, “I don’t want to hear those things” or “I went through tough times as a teen, but I got over it.” Instead, encourage your children to share their feelings by saying, “Tell me more about how you’re feeling,” and be attentive to their words.
  3. Maintain connection: While it may be tempting to keep your child home in a protective cocoon, isolation can increase the risk of suicidal behaviors. Help them maintain connections with friends and loved ones. As a parent, spend extra time with your child, even engaging in simple activities like watching TV or playing video games together to reinforce your presence and support.
  4. Be compassionate: Express your love for your child or teen, acknowledging their pain and reassuring them that things can get better. Let them know that you will ensure they receive the help they need and that you will support them every step of the way.
  5. Trust your judgment: If a young person denies having suicidal thoughts but you have doubts, trust your intuition. Take additional steps to ensure their safety.
    Prioritize safety: If you have concerns about your child, ensure they are not left alone and consult a mental health professional immediately.
  6. Be mindful of language: the recommended term for discussing suicide is “died by suicide,” as previous terms like “committed suicide” have a criminal connotation and reinforce the stigma that it is a selfish act or choice.

This guide was adapted from the American Psychological Association’s resource on suicide prevention for teens (source: https://www.apa.org/topics/suicide/prevention-teens).

Below is a link to a video of Stanford psychologist Dr. Helen Hsu providing guidance to parents of children whose classmate has died by suicide

How to Talk to Survivors of Suicide Loss: Psychologist Answers Parenting Questions

Click here for a guide to helping yourself and others after a suicide.

Click here to review a resource sheet for parents.

Encourage your child to reach out for assistance if they are struggling or if they have concerns about a friend. Below is the contact information.

Grief reactions

In the face of difficult news, children may respond in various ways. It is important to recognize that grief is a normal and necessary response to loss, even if your child did not have a direct connection to the student involved. It is also possible that your child may not be affected by the news at all. There is no “right” or “wrong” way for your child to process their emotions during this time. We understand that supporting your child through their grief can be challenging, and we are here to provide the assistance you need.

Below is a video of Stanford psychologist Dr. Helen Hsu regarding the grief experience.

Grief Education: Things to Understand About the Grief Experience

Risk Factors

While teenagers who knew Trey are at a higher risk, it is important to note that anyone touched by the suicide may be at an increased risk of exhibiting suicidal behavior. With the rise of social media, our children have developed connections to one another that extend beyond personal encounters. As parents, it is crucial to remain vigilant in participating in your child’s social media life and monitoring their online interactions.

Adolescents face an increased risk of suicide due to various factors, including impulsive behavior. To ensure the safety of your children, we encourage you to be extra vigilant if you have substances, medications, or weapons in your home that could be used for self-harm. Whether your child has a history of exhibiting impulsivity or not, please consider removing them from your home or take immediate steps to secure them by either putting them away or locking them up.

Additional risk factors for suicide include:

  • Mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders
  • Alcohol and substance use
  • Impulsive behaviors
  • History of trauma or abuse
  • Family history of suicide
  • Previous suicide attempts

Warning signs

We urge you to remain vigilant for signs that may indicate an increased risk of suicide. It is important to familiarize yourself with these warning signs and ensure your child is aware of them as well.

The warning signs to watch for include:

  • Verbal threats of suicide
  • Suicide notes
  • Suicidal postings on social media sites (including indirect expressions like, “the world would be better without me.”)
  • Previous suicide attempts
  • A sense of hopelessness or helplessness
  • Persistent depression
  • Increased risk-taking or aggression
  • Increased substance use or abuse
  • Making final arrangements, such as giving away possessions
  • Self-harming behavior, such as cutting or unintentional self-harm
  • Changes in the ability to focus or think clearly
  • Decline in school functioning, such as grades and social life
  • Death or suicidal themes in writing or artwork
  • Sudden and significant changes in personality

We encourage you to take these warning signs seriously and seek immediate support if you observe any of them in your child or others.

For your information, we are only sending this letter to Upper School parents. The counseling team has sent a separate email to Upper School Students.

The Harvard-Westlake Counseling Team

Michelle Bracken mbracken@hw.com
Brittany Bronson bbronson@hw.com
Camille da Santos cdasantos@hw.com
Dr. Kelly Decker kdecker@hw.com
Dr. Emily Joyner ejoyner@hw.com
Dr. Jullian Lee jlee@hw.com
Dr. Tina McGraw tmcgraw@hw.com
Kat Scardino kscardino@hw.com
Rebecca Neubauer rneubauer@hw.com