Bill supporters: ‘It’s OK to feel sad, it’s OK to struggle’

Supporters say Nathan Bruno and Jason Flatt Act would help relieve mental health stigmas

By Jim McGaw
Posted 3/22/19

PROVIDENCE — As former state representative Doug Gablinske fought back tears, his daughter, Lauren, told a Senate subcommittee why the family wished the proposed Nathan Bruno and Jason …

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Bill supporters: ‘It’s OK to feel sad, it’s OK to struggle’

Supporters say Nathan Bruno and Jason Flatt Act would help relieve mental health stigmas


PROVIDENCE — As former state representative Doug Gablinske fought back tears, his daughter, Lauren, told a Senate subcommittee why the family wished the proposed Nathan Bruno and Jason Flatt Act had been the law eight years ago.

Lauren Gablinske’s brother, Derek, took his life four days after Thanksgiving in 2011. He was 29.

“Growing up in Bristol my entire life, I was surrounded by a fantastic community,” Ms. Gablinske told the Senate Committee on Education. “My family’s the best thing I could ever ask for. Mother’s a principal of an elementary school, father runs a business right down the street. They were at every soccer game our entire lives — on the field every night, every day. And yet, my brother could still take his life by suicide, and we didn’t know.”

The suicide prevention education bill that was introduced in both chambers of the General Assembly on Wednesday, she said, strives to prevent people from having to ask the same question her family did after Derek’s death: “How could this have happened to someone you love so much? Most importantly, when it comes to saving lives, how do we communicate with one another?”

Ms. Gablinske is now the director of community education and outreach of Samaritans in Boston, and a licensed school counselor. The proposed bill would not only provide needed training so school staff can recognize signs when students need mental health counseling, but it would also provide teens an outlet to come forward with any problems they may be experiencing, she said.

“It’s OK to feel sad, it’s OK to struggle,” Ms. Gablinske said. “That’s the biggest thing that teens struggle with — that they’re not given the permission to talk about it. At the end of the day, all we really want is someone to sit with us, to ask us how our day was.”

Ms. Gablinske was one of many people who testified in favor of the legislation at subcommittee meetings Wednesday. Here’s a sampling of what some others had to say:

Francine Roy

Board member of Be Great for Nate and a mother of two sons who have been through the Portsmouth schools

She said research shows that adolescents’ mental well-being improves when they have trusted adults they can regularly turn to. “Relationships matter. We can’t assume that a student will have a great relationship with an adult; it needs to be institutionalized.”

Adolescents are “extremely vulnerable to any social stressors … especially one that isolates them from their peers,” she said, noting this is precisely what happened to Nathan Bruno.

She also testified that the parent notification portion of the bill will ensure accountability, transparency and feedback.

“As a parent … if you know something about my children I need to know. Parents are partners and that needs to be institutionalized as well.”

Kevin Vendituoli

Newport attorney and board member of Be Great for Nate

Mr. Vendituoli said he researched the circumstances at PHS leading up to Nathan’s death. “It seems somebody definitely dropped the football here … We can do more for kids,” he said.

However, no single person was to blame, said Mr. Vendituoli, who called the tragedy “a systemic failure.” The system is undermined when parents don’t know all the facts about their children, he said.

He also commended Nathan’s father, Rick Bruno, and the boy’s friends for not being overcome with grief or anger. Rather, they sought something positive out of the tragedy, Mr. Vendituoli said.

Steven Peterson

Social worker, program director of Every Student Initiative

Mr. Peterson shared some sobering statistics with the subcommittees.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 3,041 suicide attempts of high school students each day, and that suicide is now the second leading cause of death among young people in America. The Bi-Annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 23 percent of middle schoolers and 29 percent of high schoolers have felt hopeless in the last year, he said.

But the last statistic he shared was the most important, he said: “Four out of five teens display clear warning signs before they make an attempt on their life,” he said. “That is why this legislation is so important. This statistic shows that if school staffs are trained in the signs of suicide, we can stop the attempt before it even happens.”

Ray Davis

Assistant director of Newport County Prevention Coalition, past president of Portsmouth Prevention Coalition

“The tragic death of Nathan has affected our entire community,” said Mr. Davis.

In substance abuse prevention work, “we see how mental health is a precursor to many things,” he said, adding that the proposed bill’s emphasis on training is important because it will help school staff recognize the warning signs.

Patrick Crowley

Government relations specialist for the National Education Association of Rhode Island (NEARI)

“We’re committed to make sure this issue is addressed as often as possible,” Mr. Crowley said.

NEARI has some “technical concerns” about the bill, but he said they could be worked out with the sponsoring legislators.

Sarah Dinklage

Executive director, Rhode Island Student Assistance Services

Whether someone is a teacher, an administrator, or a bus monitor, “everyone can be trained to save a life,” said Ms. Dinklage.

She added that any intervention with a troubled student starts with a simple question: “How are you doing?”

Nathan Bruno, Portsmouth High School, Be Great for Nate, Every Student Initiative

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