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Tragedy sparks law for mental health awareness

Target 12

PORTSMOUTH, R.I. (WPRI) — A local group of teenagers is determined to inspire change in their friend’s memory.

Nate Bruno, 15, of Portsmouth took his own life nearly two years ago.

Now the classmates he left behind are lobbying for a new law and other ways to help students before it’s too late.

Two Portsmouth student groups are trying to create a mental health awareness model for students to follow.

Portsmouth High School’s “Be Great for Nate” and “Every Student Initiative” recently worked together to make blankets for patients at Hasbro Children’s Hospital.

If things were different, Owen Ross said Bruno would be alongside them cracking jokes as he worked.

“I just remember he was a super funny kid,” Ross, who met Bruno in 5th grade, said.

Ross said Bruno would often reference an inside joke when all of his friends were together.

“He’d scream “shark!” And everyone would drop to the ground,” Ross recalled. “For just no reason. He just made every situation super funny.”

Bruno was four months shy of his 16th birthday when his father noticed a change in his demeanor.

Rick Bruno remembers bringing it up at the dinner table one night.

“I said, ‘Hey Nate. I feel like something’s off. What is it?'” Rick Bruno recalled. “And he just said, ‘Dad, I just think nowadays kids have it harder.'”

Steven Peterson — who helped organize the blanket-making frenzy — was Nate Bruno’s former boss at a local restaurant.

After Nate Bruno ended his life, his friends went straight to Peterson.

“It just started with a couple of guys meeting and saying, ‘This is how we feel,'” Peterson said. “And then they’re saying, ‘But we want to make some change happen. We don’t want this to just happen, and we move on, and we think about Nathan.'”

“We cry about it,” Peterson continued. “We do these sorts of things. We want something positive to come. We want to make sure that the way we feel is not the way anyone feels again.”

Peterson knocked on Rick Bruno’s front door, looking for the ok to start what’s blossomed into the two student groups working every day to honor his son.

“They wanted to raise awareness of what they would see in a friend if they’re under stress,” Rick Bruno said.

Their inspiration helped create the Nate Bruno-Jason Flatt Act — a proposal that did not make it out of committee last General Assembly session.

The bill is modeled after a 12-year-old law in Tennessee named for a Nashville 16-year-old who killed himself in 1997.

Every Student Initiative recently received a crash course in civics from Portsmouth Senator James Seveney — one of the sponsors of the bill.

“To make yourselves part of the process. It’s really powerful. People pay attention to that,” Seveney said.

Collin Cord, the organization’s policy director, said they’re determined to nudge the bill out of committee before he graduates next year.

“We’ve changed our strategy with how we’re going about it,” Cord said. “We’ll have a larger group go up there to try and push the process forward.”

“This will go somewhere,” Seveney said. “You will get it done — and we will help.”

The bill would require teachers and staff to be educated annually about the signs they should look for in a stressed student. There would also be new protocols for notifying parents.

Rick Bruno said his son’s case did not involve clinical depression, drugs or alcohol and there were no red flags pointing to suicide.

But he also said knowing there was a problem sooner would’ve been vital.

“If we could’ve cut Nathan’s stress back by five to six weeks, we could’ve reached him a lot sooner with that emotional support,” Rick Bruno said.

“Just reaching out to a kid that’s having a problem may steer you clear of something that blossoms into a real tragedy,” Seveney added.

The group’s main goal is higher than getting the law passed, however. They want to make a global impact by building a model that other communities can also use.

“I really believe this youth movement,” Peterson said. “This generation is the one that will end suicide, but there’s so much work to be done.”

Be Great for Nate is already training students about the signs to look for in their classmates.

“That’s one of the stigmas we bring up – like, boys don’t cry,” Ross said. “If you have a mental illness, you’re weak. Those are just the things you want to get out of people’s heads.”

There are 20 other states that have passed similar laws to the one the group is trying to pass, but Rhode Island’s law would be the first among New England states.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter@wbuteau.

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