Friends and family gathered Tuesday to honor the memory of Spencer Smith, who died by suicide last week. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

BRUNSWICK — Colin Richard will never be able to look at a pool noodle again without thinking of the time Spencer Smith came up the stairs carrying one and, with a “smack upside the head,” started an all-out, impromptu foam noodle war with his older sister’s fiancé. 

After what must have been an hour and a half, with broken pool noodles scattered about, Richard was ready for a nap, but Smith was ready to go.

“He was goofy beyond compare,” Richard said. 

Smith, 16, took his own life last week. On Tuesday, his family and loved ones gathered for a vigil in his memory and to share a simple but strong message: Speak up if you are struggling. 

Friends and family gathered on Tuesday to honor the memory of Brunswick High School sophomore Spencer Smith, who died by suicide last week. At the vigil, people encouraged anyone struggling to speak out and not suffer in silence. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

“Spencer loved his friends and family. He would not want anyone to feel what he was feeling,” Richard said. “People will always care about you.” 

Smith was a sophomore at Brunswick High School who loved football, friends and family, and worked two jobs, his father, Jay Smith, told WMTW News over the weekend. He was struggling with the isolation brought on by the pandemic and time away from friends and sports, according to his family. 

The Portland Press Herald reported earlier this week that the mental health of young people has suffered during the pandemic as they’ve spent more time away from friends and teachers, had fewer opportunities to socialize and have been forced to respond to disruptions in routine.

Compared to 2019, the number of mental health-related emergency room visits through October this year for children ages 5 to 11 and children ages 12 to 17 increased about 24 and 31 percent, respectively, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Suicide rates among adolescents, pre-adolescents and young people were increasing well before the pandemic. According to an October 2019 report from the CDC, the suicide rate among people ages 10 to 24 was stable from 2000 to 2007, but increased more than 50 percent from 2007 to 2017, to 10.6 deaths per 100,000 people.

On Wednesday, Sen. Angus King introduced the “Improving Data Collection for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Act” to study the impact of childhood trauma on long-term health. The bill would authorize $10 million annually over five years to support CDC research surrounding the issue — one that is increasingly important as the pandemic continues, according to a press release.

“Our children have experienced an unprecedented number of changes this past year, as they’ve had to break their usual routines, stay distant from friends and loved ones, and for far too many, cope with the loss of a loved one due to the coronavirus pandemic,” King said. “The pandemic has exacerbated anxiety, fueled depression, and amplified feelings of stress and uncertainty for many, while at the same time cutting down access for our children to the services and support networks they have grown to rely upon.”

During Tuesday’s vigil, Berean Baptist Church Pastor Mark Rockwood urged those assembled to “Stay in contact with one another.”

“Don’t assume someone else is making that call,” Rockwood said. “You make that call. … Let’s not gather here like this ever again.” 

Suicide, Rockwood said, is “a permanent answer to a temporary problem.”

“We’re all going to have problems,” Rockwood said. “Problems help us grow… It’s always too soon to quit.” 

Smith’s older sister, Michaela Smith, said she went through similar struggles with mental health when she was younger, but she wants young people to know they still have their whole lives ahead of them. 

“Speak up,” she said. “People love you… Reach out, even if it’s not to your parents.” 

Her brother enjoyed getting on his sisters’ nerves, she said, but in a way that never made them doubt that he loved them. 

They used to play with Nerf guns as kids and move the furniture around and would save his bullets so he could unload them all at once, she said. 

He used to spray them with water guns, and being naturally athletic, he’d run away so fast they could never catch him. 

But he was also fair, Michaela Smith said, laughing at the time he was so insistent on making sure everyone got an equal serving of cake that he measured it. 

“I love this family. I lost a younger brother myself,” Richard said. Smith’s presence was there Tuesday, even if he couldn’t be seen, Richard said, and “he doesn’t want anyone to be in that spot.” 

It’s hard to think that Smith was in so much pain — even the night before, he didn’t show any of the signs when Richard and his sister drove him to work, he said. He seemed happy. 

For anyone feeling hopeless or lost, Richard  said, “Think of Spencer … please step up.” 

If your life or someone else’s life is in immediate danger, dial 911.

For immediate assistance during a mental health crisis, call or text the Maine 24-Hour Crisis Hotline at 888-568-1112. The National Alliance on Mental Illness teen text support line is also available from 12 p.m. to 10 p.m. each day and can be reached at 207-515-8398 (TEXT).

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