Suzie Bartel isn’t just a can-do person. She describes herself as someone who can’t just stand by when she sees a problem. She has to respond.
So when her son Ryan took his own life on Oct. 15, 2014, she got to doing. She formed the Ryan Bartel Foundation, aimed at preventing suicide by empowering young people to help each other. Then, less than a year later, she partnered with counselors and students at Woodgrove High School, where her son was a senior, because she knew her mission to create a better support system for young people would gain more traction if teens were involved.
Now, she’s seeing a changed atmosphere among the students in that school, a life-saving spark she wants to spread to every high school in Loudoun County. And she has a plan to do it.
Through the foundation, Bartel is working to raise $15 per high school student to bring an ongoing suicide prevention program to Loudoun’s 16 public high schools. Part of the program implements Sources of Strength training, which equips young people to help one another cope with all that life throws at them long before suicide becomes an option.
“So many programs focus on intervention at the time of crisis. That’s too late,” Bartel said. “If we develop in them the skills to get through the hard things, we’re not going to need intervention.”
Change for the Better
A year ago, in response to the suicides of three western Loudoun teens in less than two years, Woodgrove High School students, counselors and parents started the We’re All Human Committee, with Bartel’s help. They’ve since noticed a different attitude among students. There’s a palpable sense of hope amid difficult times. Students are willing to speak up and ask for help. Classmates are willing to lend an ear.
“I’ve seen a complete turnaround in a number of students,” said Geri Fiore, director of guidance at Woodgrove since 2010. “Students are not afraid to say ‘I’m struggling,’ and we’re seeing more students reaching out to help one another.”
Principal Sam Shipp knew the school needed healing, but he didn’t know how it might happen. “We’re seeing more empathy, more openness to talk,” he said, “and I don’t think, without Ms. Bartel, that these important conversations would be happening.”
Emily Beach, a senior, counts herself among those changed students. She used to feel anxious and often overwhelmed at school. Her involvement in the We’re All Human Committee and, more recently, the Sources of Strength program has helped her deal with those feelings and help others.
“This has opened my eyes,” she said. “It’s given me a better outlook.”
Adrienne Lyne, president of Woodgrove’s parent teacher student organization, sat in on Woodgrove’s Sources of Strength training on Nov. 10 and fought back tears of joy through much of it. It was her son’s 19th birthday, a day he had told his friends several months earlier he wouldn’t live to see because he had plans to end his life. His friends contacted the pastor of their church for help.
Lyne thinks the message those friends heard over and over again at Woodgrove—to tell somebody when a person is struggling—saved her son’s life. “It’s better to be wrong than to be right and live with the weight of not telling anybody,” she said. Of her younger daughters’ involvement in the Sources of Strength training, Lyne said, “My kids are hearing that they’re not alone in this. As a parent, that’s been the bright spot for me.”
Sources of Strength
Bartel says one key ingredient to dissuade students from suicide is teaching them resilience and the importance of community. Her search for effective resources led her to Sources of Strength, a program developed by Mark LoMurray in the late 1990s after he worked with law enforcement as a crisis-response expert. In a three-year period, he attended 30 funerals of teenagers—a number of them caused by suicides.
“A lot of the treatment was very reactionary so he said, ‘we’ve got to talk about this earlier and get young people involved,’” said his son, Scott LoMurray, who now runs the program.
He kicked off the Sources of Strength training at Woodgrove and Loudoun Valley last week. He told the students that negative events stick to a person’s brain like Velcro, while the more positive ones bounce off. But studies show this can be reversed, with practice.
“If I allow the jerk who cut me off to change me and harden me, but don’t give that same credence to a hug from my kids, that’s a loss,” he said, encouraging the students to dwell a few seconds on the good that’s around them. “I think gratitude is one of the most powerful ways to lift our spirit.”
Bartel wants every Loudoun student to hear that same message. The Ryan Bartel Foundation will split the cost to deliver its suicide prevention program, including ongoing Sources of Strength training, with high school parent-teacher-student organizations that want to take part. Family members of Will Robinson, a Loudoun Valley student who took his life Jan. 14, have also stepped up to help. They are covering half the cost for the program at Loudoun Valley.
John Lody, director of the schools’ Office of Diagnostic and Prevention Services, has joined Bartel to implement the SOS training in schools willing to raise the funds. Last spring, his department stepped up efforts to reach teens after responding to four student suicides in one year, a big increase in a school division that typically sees one every other year.
Lody said the SOS Training is compatible with the programs the school system has in place, in that it “focuses on building social-emotional strengths in individuals along with creating a caring and supportive school culture.”
After a full day of training, SOS student ambassadors at each school will undergo lessons during study hall every two weeks. From there, they put on programs for their classmates throughout the year, anything from small, in-class sessions to all-school assemblies.
Bartel expects it will take about three years for the training to impact every corner of a school. She acknowledged that it will take time, money and support from community members.
“It’s a big investment, but it’s so worthwhile,” she said. “We need to teach young people that, yes, crap happens—that’s life. But they need to know how to get through it. The coping skills they’re learning today will help them the rest of their lives.”
Suzie Bartel is looking for donors who can give as little as $15 to cover one student to company sponsors and grants that can deliver the program to every Loudoun high schooler. Learn more and donate at ryanbartelfoundation.org.