Loudoun rates among the best places to live. Its families, on average, bring home some of the biggest paychecks in the nation. And its schools boast graduation rates and SAT scores that are head and shoulders above state and national averages.
But, this year, the county has also had to stomach a disturbing statistic. It’s seen more teen suicides in 2016 than any recent year on record. Loudoun County Public Schools reported four this year, a big increase in a county that typically sees one every other year. The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office responded to 34 total suicides, of all ages, this year.
The rise in suicides, especially among young people, prompted a community-wide conversation about how to improve the safety net to help struggling youth before they make a fatal decision. In the past year, law enforcement leaders and mental health professionals have held town hall-style meetings and forums, working to arm parents to promote potentially life-saving tips. And, in the spring, the school system’s top psychologists, social workers and counselors rolled out an emergency outreach effort to every high school after a fourth Loudoun student in less than a year committed suicide.
“I’m very worried,” John Lody, director of the schools’ Office of Diagnostic and Prevention Services, said in April. “After this year, the whole rules changed for us.”
“We have a huge problem in our community,” Suzie Bartel, whose son Ryan took his own life in 2014, said at an assembly at Woodgrove High School, also in April. “But if we can all come together, we can make a big difference.”
Parents Turned Activists
The parents of two western Loudoun boys who took their own lives stepped up to try to save others.
After her 17-year-old son, Will, killed himself in January, Ann-Charlotte Robinson felt a call to reach out to teens with a message of hope through music. She partnered with longtime friend and local music therapist Tom Sweitzer to put on a rock opera, “A Will to Survive.” The show is both a tribute to Will and a call to teens that they are not alone in their struggles with mental health or social struggles. It first took the stage in October but is scheduled to be performed in every high school in Loudoun by the end of the school year.
“Will and his life is the thread, but it is not about suicide,” Sweitzer said of the show. “It’s about hope. It’s about no matter who you are as a teenager, reaching out to somebody is never too late.”
Bartel, mother of a Woodgrove High School senior who lost his life to suicide in October 2014, also made big strides in working with students, and county and school leaders, to shine a light on shortfalls in how young people think about mental health. She started the Ryan Bartel Foundation and partnered with school counselors to bring the Sources of Strength program to Woodgrove and Loudoun Valley high schools. The program equips young people to help one another cope with all that life throws at them long before suicide becomes an option.
Bartel, along with the counselors and principal at Woodgrove, saw such a changed atmosphere among the students in that school that, in November, she committed to partner with school parent-teacher organizations to bring an ongoing suicide prevention program to every one of Loudoun’s 16 public high schools. The Ryan Bartel Foundation is working to raise $15 per student to bring that vision to fruition.
“It’s a big investment, but it’s so worthwhile,” Bartel 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.”
Teens Join the Effort
This year, young people became an important voice in the discussion of how to prevent suicides. Efforts by Bartel, Robinson and the school system have focused on equipping young people to help one another.
Diagnostic and Prevention Services Director John Lody’s team presented every public high school student with the Acknowledge-Care-Tell booster program, which educates young people on not only how to prevent a friend from ending their life, but how to help one another 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.
Matthew Greason, the senior class president at Stone Bridge High School, made similar comments last week, after a freshman at that school lost his life to suicide. The 17-year-old said students need to take ownership to help be a part of the solution.
He encouraged his classmates to consider joining PEER (Positive Experiences and Educational Relationships), a program at every Loudoun high school that invites students to talk to one another about whatever they’re facing, whether it’s stresses related to school, family or social aspects of their lives. He also suggested other schools organize programs like Stone Bridge’s Bulldogs Don’t Bully, an annual assembly put on for the entire freshman class.
“I know every suicide is not 100 percent preventable—there will always be outliers—but there are steps that we can take as the school community to prevent a lot of them,” Greason said.
Bartel was one of the first in the community to give young people a platform to help the cause. She’s hopeful that the work of her foundation and the schools can continue to make a real difference and give youth a voice.
“It’s too late now for Ryan. Unfortunately, I can’t do anything about it. But I’m trying to do something about it now,” she said. “If we can save just one life, we’ve done our job.”