Fairfax County’s public school system certainly didn’t set out to become ground zero for the nation’s struggle with mental illness and teen suicide, but fate had other plans.
Those tragic plans first appeared in early February when two Langley High School students committed suicide within 24 hours of each other. Three weeks later, two more students from Woodson High School took their own lives.
In the past three years, 15 Fairfax County teens have committed suicide, including six who attended Woodson. Not surprisingly, those deaths left an indelible mark on students and parents across the county and led to a demand for action from school administrators.
For the most part, it appears those demands are being heard.
In a letter to Woodson parents last week, assistant superintendent Douglas Tyson said a team of mental health experts has been put in place at the school to support students and identify teens who are struggling.
“The new school support team will work to ensure that trained professional staff are available at Woodson to expeditiously handle the evaluation of at-risk students and help families connect to appropriate support services,” Tyson wrote. “We understand that there are no quick fixes to the issues that we are facing, but we are in this together with you for the long term and will continue to strengthen the response and outreach efforts.”
The Fairfax County school system also announced that it will be hosting what it calls a “community conversation” on teen mental health on May 17 at Hayfield Secondary School. The event will bring together teens, parents, school and government officials and staff, mental health practitioners and community organizations. Event organizers plan to address dozens of topics that range from social media and bullying intervention to substance abuse and the importance of sleep for teen success.
While we’re glad to see sunlight applied to an issue that’s been placed in the dark for far too long, reality—and more than a few statistics—tell us we’re in the first few steps of a 100-mile journey.
Teen depression is a very real issue in Fairfax County, where the expectation for many 15- and 16-year-olds is to attain a 4.2 GPA, play three varsity sports and master a couple of musical instruments before moving on to Harvard or Yale and eventually opening their own law or medical practice.
Is it any wonder that results from a 2013 Fairfax County youth survey found that approximately 33.9 percent of seniors said they felt sad or hopeless during the previous year?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third-leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds, after accidents and homicide. The latest CDC statistics also show that the number of attempted suicides among teenagers is rising, from 6.3 percent in 2009 to 7.8 percent in 2011.
Going forward, it’s important that the steps being taken at Woodson eventually take root at each of the county’s 23 high schools. Frankly, the subject should be front and center at every school. That means posting suicide-prevention phone numbers prominently on school websites, conducting quarterly meetings on suicide prevention and exploring ways to reduce the day-to-day pressure too many students are feeling.
It’s also critical that everyone involved in the school community—students, parents, administrators and law enforcement—work together to reduce the stigma now attached to depression and mental health problems. Much of that stigma is based on fear, misunderstanding and discrimination, and too many of us are conditioned to run from it or discuss it only in hushed tones.
The reality is that mental illness is like physical illness. It has symptoms, it can be treated and it has nothing to do with a lack of moral character. The sooner we all understand that, the more likely we are to reach out and lend a hand.
To a distraught 15-year-old in Fairfax County, a well-phrased question or kind smile might mean the difference between life and death.