Four Loudoun teens have taken their lives so far this school year. That’s a big increase in a county that typically sees one youth suicide every other year.
It’s prompted Loudoun public schools’ top psychologists, social workers, and counselors to roll out a massive outreach effort to arm students at every high school with the know-how to recognize and respond to signs of suicidal behavior among their friends.
“I’m very worried,” John Lody, director of the schools’ Office of Diagnostic and Prevention Services, said this week. “After this year, the whole rules changed for us.”
Typically, every high school freshman sees a suicide prevention presentation during health class. But after the fourth local teenager committed suicide earlier this year, Lody and his team said they dropped everything to try to prevent more lives from being lost.
“We went into action. We wanted to get the message out to as many as possible as quickly as possible,” he said.
His team gave 400 suicide prevention presentations to 16,300 high school sophomores, juniors and seniors in four weeks, which Lody called “a massive effort.”
The Acknowledge-Care-Tell booster program educates young people on not only how to prevent a friend from ending their life, but how to get help before anxiety, depression or just their high-stress school environment becomes overwhelming.
“We’re capitalizing on the reality that friends of youth are more likely to know what’s going on with their peers,” Lody said.
Loudoun isn’t alone in its efforts.
The county’s closest neighbor to the east, Fairfax County, was the focus of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study in 2014 after its school system saw a spike in the number of students taking their own lives. The study found that high expectations for students, parental pressure on students for success and parental denial of mental health issues among their children were some of the key factors that led to suicide.
The rate of teen suicides has also increased nationally. In 2014, suicide became the second leading cause of death among youth, surpassing cancer.
Lody said his goal is to prevent more teens from taking their lives before suicide becomes a year-over-year rising trend in Loudoun. To do that, his staff is also looking at helping teens cope with the day-in, day-out stresses of high school, long before they’re suicidal. This fall, teachers will receive training on how to teach students to manage academic pressures.
The Loudoun County School Board on Tuesday adopted a proclamation designating May Mental Health Awareness Month, with the goal of raising awareness about common disorders among youth and making sure families know help is available.
Board members commended Lody and his team for ramping up their efforts on such short notice and without any more resources. “I want to make sure we keep mental health at the forefront going forward,” Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) said. “We’re up over 500 percent over previous year averages in regards to suicide, so this is a worthy investment.”
Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) said she knows of several young people who committed suicide shortly after graduating from Loudoun County schools. She encouraged Lody to provide information to parents on how to help their children as they transition from high school to college or the workforce. He agreed that was a good idea, and noted that the risk of suicide among young people with mental illness doubles in college.
Suicide prevention presentations will now not only be just for Loudoun’s freshman students. Acknowledge-Care-Tell will be an ongoing program at every high school grade level.
Lody describes the program like a booster shot, that a patient should renew every so often. “We want to remind kids more frequently about the importance of reaching out to adults and looking out for their friends and trying to save lives when they can,” he said. “If we can do this for 16,000 students 10 years in a row and we can save one life it’s absolutely worth all the effort.”
See related article: “Students Walk to Curb Suicide Countywide.”