Annual event supports suicide prevention, education in western Mass.

  • Annual ride was inspired by a Massachusetts Suicide Prevention Program task force member who was a motorcyclist. Contributed photo

  • Motorcycles line up at the 2016 Ride of Your Life event. Contributed photo

  • Last year, 200 motorcycles started the ride and 250 finished, with 50 having joined part of the way through. Barbara Nealon, the director of social service and multicultural services for Heywood Hospital, says this was the largest group in the event’s history and 500 people attended the barbecue. Contributed photo

Recorder Staff
Published: 8/18/2017 11:15:13 AM

Luc Melanson was in many ways just a typical 14-year-old American boy.

He played football and hockey and always had tons of friends. So it was all the more shocking when the Winchendon resident took his own life on Nov. 11, 2011. But the pain his family members continue to feel is only intensified by the stigma plaguing the family in the aftermath.

Mother Brenda Melanson talks about the looks other people give when the family dares to have a good time in public or show even a sign of happiness.

“How can they do a vacation? They lost their son,” she assumes they’re thinking. But Brenda says she isn’t moving on from her son’s death — rather, she’s moving forward from it. It is this attitude that led Brenda to join the Montachusett Suicide Prevention Task Force and it is the stigma attached to suicide that in part led the task force to establish the annual Ride of Your Life to support suicide prevention and education.

The event, sponsored in part by Heywood Healthcare, consists of a motorcycle ride through northcentral Massachusetts towns and a barbecue open to the public. This year’s ride, the fifth one of its kind, is slated to begin at Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School in Fitchburg at 9:30 a.m. on Aug. 20 and ends in the same location after a three-hour loop. The barbecue starts at 11:30 a.m. The event is rain or shine.

Melanson is unable to attend this year’s event, but says it has accomplished what it was meant to do by raising awareness and helping to heal some of the wounds suicide leaves in its wake.

“People don’t understand our struggles,” she says of survivors of suicide.

In memory

Barbara Nealon, the director of social service and multicultural services for Heywood Hospital, explains that in 2011 there was a community health needs assessment that determined Gardner and its surrounding town had among the highest suicide rates in Massachusetts.

“And we were feeling it before we even knew about this report that came out,” she says, referring to multiple questionable deaths in the schools in the region.

Months after the death of a middle schooler in January 2012, Nealon explains, members of the community sat down the Massachusetts Suicide Prevention Program to see what could be done. The task force was born out of these meetings and it started receiving state funding.

“The first few meetings there were a lot of tears, a lot of emotions,” Nealon recalls, though she added that “we started to feel like there was light at the end of the tunnel.”

She says the annual ride was inspired by a task force member who was a motorcyclist.

“We never imagined that it would get as big as it is,” Nealon says.

Last year, 200 motorcycles started the ride and 250 finished, with 50 having joined part of the way through. Nealon says this was the largest group in the event’s history and 500 people attended the barbecue.

“We ran out of chicken,” she says with a laugh. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children under 12.

Signs of Suicide

John Salovardos, a task force member who works at Narragansett Regional High School, says money generated from the first ride enabled school adjustment counselors to administer screening tools that identified at-risk students in seven or eight school districts. These tools are called Signs of Suicide.

“We have found kids don’t always go to their parents ... to say, ‘Gee, I’ve having a problem,’” Salovardos says.

He says Gardner and its surrounding towns have seen a drop in the suicide in the past couple of years, though Athol, Leominster and Fitchburg still have “fairly high” rates.

“We’re healthy enough as a community to talk about it openly and look for ways to prevent it,” he says.

Nora Salovardos, John’s wife and the task force’s co-chairwoman, said Gardner lost 18 people to suicide every year (roughly three times the state average) when the task force was formed, and that statistic has had a steady downward trend since 2012.

John Salovardos says the highest rate of suicide nationwide in the past five years has been among men between their 20s and early 50s. He also says teenage and young women attempt the most often.

He says causes include job status, relationship status and bullying. Contributing factors are family history of mental illness and suicide, addiction and poverty. John says suicide knows no demographic.

When there aren’t any signs

No one, Brenda Melanson says, could have predicted Luc’s suicide. He showed none of the classic signs — sadness, withdrawal from friendships, inactiveness, loss of appetite or an insatiable appetite. Luc was active and engaged. He wasn’t bullied. In fact, he took active measures — including dressing in a way to redirect harassment to himself — to prevent the bullying of others. But Brenda thinks this struggle may have depressed him and led to his suicide.

“He couldn’t change the way people were being judgmental,” she recalls.

Melanson is the facilitator of Heywood’s Survivors of Suicide Loss Group, which meets the second Wednesday of each month at Heywood Hospital in Gardner.

She says Luc was a freshman at Narragansett Regional High School, having school-choiced out of Murdock High School. This left a lot of friends reeling from his suicide. Melanson says there were 1,400 mourners at Luc’s wake and that many of his friends still visit the Melanson home.

“So I know they were true friends,” she says.

John Salovardos says the ride goes through Gardner, Fitchburg, Westminster, Barre, Petersham, Athol, Phillipston and Templeton.

More information about the ride is available at: bit.ly/2ftfMEW. Tickets are $25 for riders and $15 for passengers (includes lunch, maps and on-route refreshments). There will also be door prizes.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 258. On Twitter: @DomenicPoli


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