PORTLAND — For Cameron Kelly Rosenblum, writing her debut novel, “The Stepping Off Place,” was as personal as the book’s heavy subject matter.
The longtime teacher and librarian at Pond Cove Elementary School in Cape Elizabeth used her own experience coping as an adult with the news of a childhood friend’s suicide to pen the story of a teenage girl confronting a similar death.
Now, Rosenblum and the book helped kick off a monthly series of virtual discussions on teen mental health at Portland Public Library, which began Nov. 25.
“I think we really need to be willing to talk about it,” Rosenblum said.
A native of Connecticut, Rosenblum and her husband, Paul, a Maine native, moved to Cumberland in 1999. She’s worked at Pond Cove ever since, first as a third grade teacher, and now as the school’s librarian. All that time, however, Rosenblum nurtured a dream of being an author.
“I was a strong writer early,” she said.
Rosenblum first started writing manuscripts in 2003, in part as “art therapy” while coming to grips with her son, Jack, being diagnosed with autism. She initially wrote fantasy stories for readers who were elementary or middle-school aged, but they didn’t sell.
The tragedy that wound up fueling her debut novel, Rosenblum said, involved an old friend she had known since both were in middle school. They were the definition of best friends, including frequent sleepovers and that general inseparability that comes with deep childhood friendships.
“We were like Frick and Frack,” she said.
After high school, though, they moved away from each other, only staying in touch by letter for years until 2007.
“One year, I didn’t get a letter back from her,” Rosenblum said.
In time, Rosenblum learned not only that her old friend had killed herself, but that there had been a number of mental health issues that Rosenblum had known nothing about.
“I was so devastated at the time because I was blindsided by it,” she said.
But like many writers, Rosenblum felt a compulsion to write about her feelings in some way, so after her other manuscripts failed, she tried to translate her experience into a new novel.
“I thought, ‘My God, what would have happened to me if this had happened when I was in high school?’” she said.
The book tells the story of Reid and her best friend, Hattie. Like Rosenblum, Reid is shocked to discover Hattie has committed suicide, and the story shows how Reid responds to the loss. For Rosenblum, it was a hard novel to write, but in the end she said through the experience she’d found a much truer voice that came from her heart.
“I stopped writing for the market, and I started writing the story I needed to get out of myself,” she said.
The experiment seems to be working. Her book debuted over the summer, and since has been listed on the Maine Sunday Telegram’s bestseller list. On Nov. 25, the book was the subject of a virtual discussion that started a series of talks on teen mental health, produced by the Portland Public Library in cooperation with the Lewiston Public Teen Library and Print: A Bookstore. Kelley Blue, teen librarian at Portland Public Library, said she has worked with local schools, including Portland High School, for years, and recent surveys of students indicated they wanted to learn more about topics such as teen suicide and mental health.
“They had identified that they’d wanted more support around the subject,” Blue said.
The National Alliance for Mental Health and NAMI Maine both indicate mental health conditions are common among teens and young adults, with 50% of all lifetime mental illnesses developing by age 14 and 75% developing by age 24. NAMI also indicates lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight youth.
The subject is an important one not only in Maine, but nationwide. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, adolescents and young adults ages 15-24 had a suicide rate of 14.45 per 100,000 people in 2018 alone; the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists suicide as the second-leading cause of death for Americans 15-24 years old.
The Nov. 25 session, Blue said, was attended by 30 people, and the program has speakers booked through February, with plans to continue the sessions through May. The sessions are recorded live via Zoom on the last Wednesday of every month at noon. Recordings of previous sessions are also available.
Blue said she hopes the sessions will help local teens use books to build bonds that they might not be able to do in person due to the pandemic. She also said she wants the series to help teens “discover books that you can get sunk into and really connect with.”
Sean Murphy 780-9094
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