County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large)’s teen suicide prevention forum at Inova Loudoun Hospital on Monday night brought together people from across age groups and professions with a single message: “There’s always hope.”
Suzie Bartel, founder and director of the Ryan Bartel Foundation, said after her son’s suicide, she spoke to a great number of his friends.
“What struck us as we tried to figure out what we needed to do about it was, one of the consistent themes in all of these stories was that Ryan had been a pillar for them,” Bartel said. “He had been the rock for his friends. They turned to him for support when they needed it. What really became the predominant theme was: These kids don’t talk to us, as adults.”
Teenagers, of course, know this.
“A lot of us build this trust with our friends, and it’s supposed to be just between us friends,” said 19-year-old Abby Dahl, an actress in A Place to Be’s show “A Will to Live,” which features the life of Will Robinson, a Loudoun Valley High School student who took his own life in January. “And if one of our friends come to us and says I don’t want to be here … we want to help you, but they’re going to hate us if we go tell a parent, or we go tell a teacher. We don’t want to lose the friendship, but we also don’t want to lose the friend.”
Katie Lynham, a Woodgrove High School senior, said she’d been in that very situation when her boyfriend texted her late at night saying he wanted to kill himself, and that if she told anyone he would never speak to her again. Lynham ultimately decided to go to the school counselor anyway.
“He wasn’t talking to me for maybe a week, and he finally decided that I was right,” Lynahm said.
Bartel talked about how the foundation partnered with students at Woodgrove High School for the We’re All Human project, letting the networks of support and friendship among teenagers help.
“What was incredible for us was to pretty much just sit back and allow them to take the reins in terms of figuring out what it is that we need to do to change the dialogue around suicide,” Bartel said.
Katie Brantingham is one of those teens. She said her life was changed by a walk in April organized by We’re All Human.
“I would not be here today without Ms. Bartel and this whole group,” Brantingham said. “They completely changed my whole life and my outlook on everything about life, and with hearing the other students and how they got through all their issues, I knew I could get through it too, and I wasn’t alone.”
Brantingham said “hope” is one of her favorite words now, and that she’s seen a change in the whole student body since the walk.
“We feel like we’re more connected, and it’s easier to talk about it, even though it’s such a touchy subject,” she said.
“The greatest strength in the world is being able to say you need help,” said Kim Tapper, associate executive director of A Place to Be in Middleburg. “I have seen many students in the audience come up after the show and say, ‘that’s what I needed to hear.’”
The forum was moderated by Neil McNerney, Randall’s appointee to the Community Services Board and an adolescent and family counselor. The panel also included representatives from a wide range of the community and government organizations and resources looking for ways to help. Among them were Michelle Petruzzello, division director for the Loudoun County Department of Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Developmental Services; Doug Wall, worship pastor at Leesburg Community Church; John Lody, director of Diagnostic and Prevention Services at Loudoun County Public Schools; and Gina Harrison, clinical director at Inova Loudoun Hospital Children’s Emergency Department. Will Robinson’s mother, Ann-Charlotte Robinson, also attended.