Channeling grief for son into action

Needham official Jon Mattleman (left) meets with Richard Roberts. Needham official Jon Mattleman (left) meets with Richard Roberts.
(Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe
By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / November 1, 2009

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Three days before he killed himself last winter, Jason Roberts left his father a voicemail message, remarkable only because it was so ordinary. The 18-year-old sounded cheerful. He told his father he loved him.

“You’d say to yourself, ‘This is a happy kid,’ ’’ recalled Richard Roberts. “One would think he was OK.’’

A few hours before he died, Roberts left his father another unremarkable message, this time by text, saying he would call later. But later that night, Richard Roberts got another call: Jason had been taken to a hospital in Hartford, where the Needham High School graduate was a college freshman. He had hung himself in his apartment.

In the eight months since Jason died, Richard Roberts has begun a crusade to educate parents and teenagers about the symptoms and dangers of depression.

On Thursday, he and another father whose son committed suicide will tell their stories in a program sponsored by Needham Youth Services, hoping their stories will do what statistics cannot.

“I just would do anything I could to save another kid or another family or a community from this thing,’’ said Roberts, who lives in Yarmouth. “That’s all. It’s the only reason I’m talking about this.’’

Needham, which has mourned at least six young people who have killed themselves since 2003, has been working for several years to get teenagers and their parents to recognize the warning signs of depression and desperation.

But the 7 p.m. presentation Thursday at the Needham Free Public Library, “Surviving Suicide: A Father’s Journey,’’ is an unusually raw and personal event, in which Roberts and Needham resident Rich Gatto, whose son, Greg, killed himself in 2004, plan to speak publicly about their families’ experiences.

“These dads are just amazing,’’ said Jon Mattleman, director of Needham Youth Services. “I don’t know too many people who would have the stamina and the courage to do this sort of thing.’’

The Needham Coalition for Suicide Prevention was created in 2006, after four young people killed themselves within 18 months. The group has sponsored training sessions for parents and adults who work with young people to reach out to youths who might be facing a suicidal crisis.

Members have worked with local hospitals to develop better treatment strategies for depressed young adults. And this year, for the first time, training designed to help teachers identify troubled students and find them help was required as part of orientation for new teachers in Needham’s schools.

Jason Roberts’s death last March is a reminder that suicide still needs to be discussed, said Tom Denton, director of guidance for the school district.

“I think that many of us, both students and parents and professionals, felt like we were kind of out of the woods or hoped we were,’’ said Denton, who is also cochairman of the suicide prevention coalition. “It was kind of our own false hope. It really brought back the ongoing risk that we’re dealing with.’’

Before his son’s death, Roberts had heard about the cluster of teen suicides in Needham, but suicide - or even depression - seemed so implausible in his family, with no history of mental illness, that neither of Jason’s parents were worried at the prospect. After an older friend killed himself a few years ago, Jason assured his parents that he was fine.

“He said, ‘Mom, you don’t have to worry about me, I would never, ever do that,’ ’’ recalled his mother, LuAnn Roberts. The couple has separated.

After Jason started having academic trouble and difficulty sleeping during his senior year at Needham High, his parents took him to a doctor, who concluded that Jason was depressed. Richard Roberts remembers being startled by the diagnosis, but he asked his son whether he wanted to talk with someone. Jason declined.

“He said, ‘No, I don’t understand what this guy is saying, I’m a happy guy,’ ’’ Roberts said. Later, after Jason died, that conversation haunted his father. “Unfortunately, if I had known more at that time, I probably would have insisted that he see somebody and work his way out of it,’’ he said.

LuAnn Roberts also remembers her son’s dismissal of the diagnosis. Jason agreed to see a therapist who started meeting at school with Needham students after the first suicides. But once he graduated, he no longer wanted counseling. He seemed enthusiastic about starting college.

“Jason had the gift of telling you whatever you wanted to hear, which I didn’t quite fully grasp until after his death,’’ his mother said.

After Jason died, his grieving father looked for answers, convinced his son must have been lured to suicide by alcohol or prescription drugs or some deadly combination. So it was bitter comfort when the hospital determined Jason had nothing foreign in his blood. Roberts realized that his popular, upbeat son had been clinically depressed.

But even after the shock of Jason’s death began to fade, his father’s anguish grew. And mixed with anguish was anger at his son for what he had done.

One Saturday, Roberts said, he found himself on the floor, sobbing. All he could think about was how to stop the pain. And then the answer came to him: He could kill himself.

“It wasn’t so much that I wanted to die,’’ Roberts said, “but I didn’t want to live anymore with this pain because it wasn’t going away.’’

Just then, his phone rang: It was the relative of someone else who had committed suicide, calling to check in.

Roberts is grateful for the phone call, grateful the caller listened to his desperate thoughts. But those minutes of wanting to die helped him understand how Jason must have felt.

“So that’s when I was kind of able to forgive him, and steer my anger that I had for him and what he did toward the problem,’’ he said. “That’s when I started to educate myself more.’’

Kathleen Burge can be reached at