There has been a lot in the news lately about mental health and its impact on our communities. On the national level, we have become numb to too many stories about shooters with mental illness that went on killing sprees then turned the gun on them self. Here in Virginia, we were all shocked when one of our own state Senator suffered from knife wounds then watched as his son committed suicide after trying to get him the help he needed the night before. And right here in Fairfax County, our own high schools have seen 15 suicides of teenagers over two years–-two in Woodson and two in Langley High school during this school year.
We run a support group for parents in Northern Virginia through the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI). Parents of children with mental illness come to our group seeking out information and guidance on how to navigate the mental health system, which can be incredibly difficult to navigate. They are also seeking comfort in knowing that others are going through what they are going through.
“National Children’s Mental Health Awareness” day is celebrated on May 8. This annual observance to raise awareness about the importance of positive mental health from birth provides us with an opportunity to celebrate the positive impact we can have on the lives of young people. Fairfax County’s activities will include:
• the launch of a new online suicide prevention training for school and county social work staff;
• adding new information on the county and schools’ websites linking to relevant information and resources for children’s mental health;
• a new Youth Mental Health First Aid course offering; and
• a proclamation of May 8 as “Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day” in Fairfax County.
It is well established that at least 90 percent of suicides are the result of a treatable mental illness. As a result of the high number of suicides in Fairfax county schools this year, the county has acted swiftly. The Fairfax County School Board took a huge step forward by putting easy to find mental health resource information and hotline numbers in prominent places on the high school and middle school websites in the county, and by hosting a “Resiliency and Mental Health Resources” summit on May 17. Many people have no idea of what to do in a crisis, or where to go for help, now at least they may have a chance.
These are good initiatives that raise awareness about children’s mental health and address the key needs in Fairfax at this time. However, as parents with knowledge of what it is like to have a child diagnosed with a mental illness, we feel it is important to point out that there is still more work to be done.
• A 2013 Fairfax County School Survey indicates a significant level of mental distress among almost one third of students. It is crucial that information be readily available to students and their families about how to access the many resources our community offers. Fairfax County Public Schools is making efforts to do this, but this must continue to happen with evidence-based programming that reaches all students, even those in the middle and elementary schools.
• Every teacher should have access to the state’s Mental Health First Aid training before entering the classroom to teach that first lesson. Although the Mental Health First Aid training is expanding, we have not gotten to the point of offering it to every teacher in the classroom.
• Although we focus on high schools when there is a suicide crisis, children with mental illness diagnosis attend every middle school and elementary school, and their needs cannot be ignored. Early prevention and intervention is important. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, half of all mental illness begins before age 14. Treating the disease early, when children first show symptoms, is critical in keeping kids on a positive trajectory of completing school, and avoiding behaviors like substance abuse for which they are at higher risk.
With the increase in suicides in Fairfax high schools, a group of parents and students have been gathering together on a monthly basis and on a Facebook group. They call themselves a Community of Solutions. They have been researching the various solutions that are out there to help students who are in crisis. But they are researching other solutions too. Do our students need more sleep? Do they need more open forums to discuss the issues that are important to them? What will the impact be of legalizing marijuana be on our students? Do they have too much homework? We hope you will take the time on May 8 to celebrate your child’s--and all of our children’s--mental health. Because awareness is one step toward the solution.
Cristy Gallagher and Gordon Dean run a NAMI support group for parents in Fairfax.