It's Spring Break this week in Lake Forest, Ill., which means pretty much everyone is on vacation. The perfectly manicured parks and baseball fields are empty. The high-end stores around town have few visitors.
15-year-old Ciara Lynch and her friends seem to be the only ones around, playing Apples to Apples at the Committee Representing Our Young Adults, which is housed in a building by the rec center. CROYA, as it's called, provides a free place for teens to hang out or find emotional support from adults or student volunteers when things get tough.
This week has been especially difficult for students and residents around the Lake Forest community. Three high school students from the affluent northern suburb died this year after being struck by a Metra commuter train, the most recent incident having happened last weekend. Local police ruled that all three deaths were intentional.
Ciara and her friends say the recent incidents come up often during their Apples to Apples game. As Ciara shuffles her cards around, she admits she feels guilty.
"Everyone feels like they could have done something, which we probably couldn't have stopped them," she says. "I don't know being in their life more or something, could have changed something."
Ciara says high school is already really hard. "We have this, like, stereotype of being this great school, and everyone wishes they could go here, but it's hard to keep up," she says.
Last Sunday the body of Ed Schutt, a senior at Lake Forest, was found on the Metra train tracks on the south end of town. In January, 15-year-old Farid Hussain's body was found by the tracks near Western and Ryan. And then in February, another 15-year-old, Will Laskero-Teskoski, was hit by a Metra train that runs right by the high school. Family members of the three students either couldn't be reached for comment or say they don't want to provide any to WBEZ.
This week, after the most recent death, the Lake Forest principal emailed parents and students, encouraging anyone who needed support to swing by CROYA's special Spring Break hours. CROYA was established in 1980 after a cluster of teen suicides and other problems shook the Lake Forest community.
"The community felt there needed to be a response to better support the kids. And you know it's interesting that, 30 years later, we're feeling the same kinds of emotions," says Todd Nahigian, manager of CROYA.
Nahigian says some people are wary of memorializing suicide by drawing attention to it, but he adds it's important for those who are grieving to have a shoulder to lean on, especially for those who have experienced death before; the recent events could trigger tough memories for them, and talking can help them cope. He says school counselors and social workers are at the ready for any student that needs to talk.
The deaths of the three students are drawing a community-wide response. Parents, police officers, city employees and others are coming together to form a task force to apply for federal money, as well as to talk to another town that has also dealt with multiple teen suicides.
Lake County Behavioral Services Director Ted Testa says the sooner people take action, the better.
"When you see patterns, when you see three incidents in a row like that, you really need to move forward to intervene. It really takes a higher priority because it becomes okay to do and it's not okay to do," he says.
Testa says suicide numbers across the county are up — and they have been for a while.
"There's more successful suicides than before — they're using more lethal means. Even as adolescents, as we've seen in Lake Forest, these were non-returnable means," Testa says.
According to the Lake County Coroner's Office, 70 deaths were ruled as suicides in 2011, compared to 45 in 2000. It should be noted that suicide deaths can be difficult to determine: Officials say the actual number of suicide deaths is probably higher than the reported numbers. The county has its own suicide prevention taskforce, and officials have been in action since January, looking at big-picture issues such as funding for mental health programs and public awareness.
Even with these resources in hand, Lake Forest residents are trying to make sense of it all.
"I know the high school it's been referred to as a pressure cooker," says Steve Jones, a Lake Forest resident and father of a high school student. "Kids are trying to get the best grades they can to get into the best schools they can and I think that's a factor, but I don't think it's the only factor."
Jones says it's sad to think young people take such an irreversible step, because no matter how hard things are, life does get better.