The topic of youth suicide prevention felt especially urgent when about 70 people gathered at 1:30 p.m. on Apr. 27 in the Virginia Hills Center in Alexandria for a panel discussion on how to recognize warning signs for suicide.
That’s because on the same day about 15 miles away, Fairfax County police discovered the body of a 16-year-old student at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax.
Identified in a Fairfax Memorial Funeral Home obituary, the student is the seventh Woodson student to commit suicide since 2011, including six students between 2011 and 2014.
The timing of the youth suicide prevention forum however, was a tragic coincidence, according to Lucy Caldwell, communications director for the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board (CSB).
The CSB hosted the event with NEXUS, a committee of the Gartlan Center’s advisory board, as part of the two groups’ annual outreach forums on subjects related to mental health, substance use disorders, and developmental disabilities.
“The forum had been planned for several months,” Caldwell said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24, with 4,600 deaths every year.
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) psychologist Dr. Lisa Horowitz, who served as the forum’s keynote speaker, emphasized the need for people to pay attention to each other’s mental wellbeing and to ask if something seems wrong.
Through her work with NIMH, Horowitz helped create a screening tool called Ask Suicide-Screening Questions (ASQ) that is often used in medical settings to guide patients to the appropriate resources.
However, anyone can step in to help if they recognize warning signs of suicide, such as comments about wanting to die, feeling hopeless, or being a burden to others. Other potential signs include increased use of alcohol or drugs, anxious or reckless behavior, too little or too much sleep, extreme mood swings, and withdrawal from social activities or interactions.
“Teens get sad, and they need someone to talk to,” Horowitz said in her speech. “Sometimes, they feel no one cares, and they don’t want to talk to Mom or Dad about their feelings.”
Non-parental figures such as friends or teachers can be crucial to suicide prevention.
Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) employs mental health specialists who provide education, intervention, consultation, and assessment services for students, parents and staff.
FCPS school psychology services coordinator Dr. Dede Bailer, who was one of five panelists at the forum, says that making an effort to connect with individual students through small, everyday interactions, such as saying hello or starting a conversation, can make a significant difference.
“We can all help build confident, stronger students, if we try,” Bailer said.
The CSB provides emergency mental health resources around the clock, including free online suicide prevention training and walk-in access to screenings and assessments.
The agency also offers a Mental Health First Aid program to raise awareness and educate communities about mental illnesses. Instructors are available for four different iterations of the program: one for adults, a Spanish version, one for youths, and one for public safety officials.
The CSB has an emergency services hotline at 703-573-5679, and people can also call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
“Sometimes, when they’re experiencing anxiety, people may not see themselves that they need help, but we really all have to take care of each other,” Caldwell said. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
The CSB will host another forum at the Merrifield Center in Fairfax on May 25 in observance of Mental Health Awareness Month.
Titled “Teen Resilience and Coping Strategies,” the forum will specifically focus how adults can better understand their children’s emotional reality. For instance, it will help parents develop tools to be able to distinguish between depression and regular teenage anxiety.
Staff from FCPS, the behavioral health services center Inova Keller Center, and PRS CrisisLink, which operates the CSB’s emergency hotline, will serve as panelists.