By Katie Lannan
State House News Service
BOSTON -- Riley DiPillo's older sister Laura, who died by suicide five years ago when she was 15, was like a red sock in a load of white laundry.
"Not only did she stand out in the crowd, but she also left a lasting impact on all those that she touched," DiPillo said, reminiscing about his sister at the Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention awards ceremony at the Statehouse on Tuesday.
Riley, a junior at Smith Academy in Hatfield, and his mother Margaret Russo started the Scarlet Sock Foundation with the goal of sharing Laura's compassion for others and love of theater by supporting local social justice theater projects.
"While our foundation is focused on the way Laura lived, the fact remains that she died by suicide, and the suicide death rates, among teen girls especially, remain on the rise," DiPillo said. He said he hopes telling his and his sister's story can help reverse that trend.
On Tuesday, which would have been Laura's 20th birthday, DiPillo was among the recipients of the coalition's "Leadership in Suicide Prevention awards."
Massachusetts lost 638 people to suicide in 2016, representing a 35 percent increase since 1999, Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel said.
Department of Mental Health Commissioner Joan Mikula told suicide prevention advocates their messaging is persuasive and has "the ability to be a game changer.
"Despite the fact that suicide rates in Massachusetts have gone up, we are still the lowest in the nation," she said. "What does that say? We obviously have much more work to do."
Honorees included Senate President Karen Spilka, Barbara Brunzell of West Boylston, Caitlin Caruso of Dracut, and Wentworth Institute of Technology's OneWIT program, which aims to give students tools to combat isolation, learn about depression and help peers who may be at risk of suicide. WCVB-TV anchor Maria Stephanos received a "Leadership in Responsible Reporting" award.
Caruso, a 27-year-old survivor of a suicide attempt, now speaks at schools and events, sharing a message of hope and encouragement. Samaritans of Merrimack Valley director Debbie Helms, who nominated Caruso, described her as "remarkable," "resilient" and "one of the most unbelievable people I've ever met."
Caruso served on a panel discussion about suicide at The Sun in January with counselors and other leaders in the wake of the newspaper's series about Anna Aslanian, a 16-year-old Lowell High student who made the decision to take her own life after being bullied.
Brunzell lost her brother Dan to suicide 39 years ago this month. After she started researching LOSSteams -- Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors, an effort Rep. Jack Lewis described as "a real-time, on-scene program where suicide loss survivor volunteers are called to the scene of a suicide death to provide comfort, to provide support, and to provide resources to family and friends of the deceased" -- Brunzell decided she wanted to volunteer on one, but the closest was in Ohio.
Working with Call2Talk -- a mental health and emotional support line reached by calling 508-532-2255 or texting "C2T" to 741741 -- and the Metrowest Suicide Prevention Coalition, Brunzell helped launch LOSSteam Metrowest, which now has six trained volunteers and works with local police stations.
"It's very comforting to know that something good has come out of a loss that was so devastating and life-altering," Brunzell said. "I know that Dan has been with me this entire journey, and I know he's really proud of me today."