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Over the course of the last nine months, three students at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax have died of apparent suicides, a number that experts say seems very high for the school’s population of 1,900, and one that could potentially be a sign of a phenomena called “suicide contagion.”

“The overall suicide rate nationally is between 11 and 12 per 100,000, so three suicides for that number of students in one school is more than you would expect,” said Dr. Richard McKeon, chief of the suicide prevention branch of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “There is a real phenomena of ‘suicide contagion’ that can occur. What contagion means is that the death by suicide of one youth can influence others. Typically you are talking about influencing other very vulnerable youth, others who might already have thoughts of suicide or may be suffering from depression or substance abuse. Media coverage of one suicide that details specifically how a suicide took place may seem to glamorize it, and may even become an inadvertent ‘how-to’ manual for another student who is already vulnerable.”

Across the country, suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens, and results in about 4,600 lives lost each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A nationwide CDC survey of youth in grades nine through 12 in public and private schools found that 16 percent of students reported seriously considering suicide, 13 percent reported creating a plan, and 8 percent reported trying to take their own life. Statewide, the total annual number of suicides across all age groups is the highest it has been in 13 years and outnumbered homicides by three to one in 2011 — the last year for which statistics are available — according to the Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Fairfax County Public Schools spokesman John Torre said that FCPS does not keep an annual tally of the number of suicides or suicide attempts made by students, but said there are programs in place within the school system to both prevent and deal with the aftermath of teen suicides.

“Many FCPS high schools have ongoing depression screening efforts targeted to either specific grade levels in grades nine through 12, and ongoing crisis intervention training in which counselors, psychologists and social workers have been provided enhanced training in crisis preparedness, prevention, response and recovery,” he said. “Depression screening and suicide prevention is also available where school social workers and psychologists are trained in effective depression screening programs and suicide prevention approaches.”

Torre said that during the course of the current school year, W.T. Woodson High School offered suicide awareness and prevention training as part of the “Signs of Suicide” prevention program.

The SOS program teaches students how to identify the symptoms of depression and suicidality in themselves or their friends, and encourages help-seeking through the use of the ACT technique which stands for Acknowledge, Care and Tell.

“The goals were to help students understand that depression is a treatable illness, and help them assess whether or not they may have symptoms consistent with depression; to explain that suicide is a preventable tragedy that often occurs as a result of untreated depression; and to provide students training in how to identify serious depression in a friend,” said Torre. “The program was offered to all students in January. There was also parent training offered.”

Lauren Anderson, 25, is a 2005 graduate of Langley High School who has started a foundation named after her late brother who committed suicide in 2009 while a junior at South Lakes High School when he was 17.

Josh Anderson played football for both Langley and South Lakes high schools before taking his own life.

Lauren Anderson said she remembers her brother having a rough time and not knowing where to turn.

“The Josh Anderson Foundation was formed for two purposes, to keep Josh’s memory alive and to collect funds for the education and prevention of teenage suicide,” she said. “We do this by implementing programs in schools that raise awareness on mental health issues. These programs strive to reduce the negative stigma that is associated with mental and emotional challenges, increase the dialogue between students, peers and adults and provide each student with the knowledge that they are not alone and resources exist to help them. Our hope is that every high school student will know that suicide is not an option.”

Anderson started the foundation in 2011 and uses it to supplement official FCPS suicide awareness programs.

Anderson raises funds for the foundation and then works with nationwide organizations and provides expert speakers who hold assemblies and give lectures in FCPS schools.

“We saw a lot of need in Fairfax County schools for mental health awareness,” she said. “When we began the foundation we held focus groups with recent graduates and asked them how much they were told about mental health resources within the schools. Most said there was very little discussion on mental health education and many were not even aware whether or not their school had a psychologist or not.”

According to FCPS, every school has access to psychological services, and students are also encouraged to ask their guidance counselors for help should they have any questions about mental health issues.

But Anderson said her research also found a very interesting phenomena where some recent FCPS graduates who said they were aware they could have gone to their guidance counselors for help specifically chose not to do so.

“What our research showed us was that students did not want their counselors to know that they could not handle the workload of being in advanced placement classes, participating in sports and in all their other extracurricular activities. They knew those same counselors would be writing their college recommendations and they did not want to appear as though they could not handle it.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com