Talk of improving the safety net for struggling teens tends to grow louder after a tragedy plays out in the public eye.
In the last couple of years, incidents involving suicidal young people have prompted elected officials and law enforcement leaders to hold press conferences and community meetings about what initiatives might help Loudoun County’s troubled youth. Some of their ideas have gained traction and resulted in more funding and much-needed resources.
But a group of students, school counselors and parents say there’s been a missing link in the effort to curb teen suicides—one they’re hoping to fill.
Those closest to two Loudoun 17-year-olds who recently took their lives—a Loudoun Valley High School student, Will Robinson, on Jan. 14, and a Woodgrove High School student, Ryan Bartel, on Oct. 15, 2014—are launching a movement to encourage teens to help other teens.
The partnership between a new foundation and a student club sets out to create tangible changes to help youth battling depression, anxiety and other mental health problems.
Those involved spent six hours in a room together last week to kick off their partnership and set their ideas into motion.
The day-long workshop included counselors from Woodgrove High School, members of the school’s new We’re All Human club, friends of Robinson, and Suzie Bartel, who recently formed The Ryan Bartel Foundation in response to her son’s decision to take his own life. In a leased room at Patrick Henry College, they huddled around marker boards and giant sheets of paper and jotted down ways to help their peers in need.
The primary goal of the partnership between The Ryan Bartel Foundation and We’re All Human is to make it OK to talk about suicide, the second leading cause of death among people ages 10-24.
“If students see kids they all know talking about this, then they can relate, then they feel like they’re not alone,” Geri Fiore, Woodgrove’s director of counseling, told those gathered for the workshop.
Bartel initially reached out to the counselors and students at Woodgrove, 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.
If suicide becomes a commonly addressed issue at school or among friends, students will be less hesitant to keep their struggles to themselves, Bartel said. “We want to create new channels for these kids to express themselves.”
Kirsten Engel, a friend of Will Robinson and a member of the We’re All Human club, agreed that it’s the temptation for people to keep quiet about suicidal thoughts, or related mental health issues, that makes those struggling feel as if they are alone.
“The more people talk about this and are aware, the more they’ll know what signs to look for,” the 15-year-old said.
With that goal at the forefront, the students decided to make the club’s signature event an annual walk, called the We’re All Human Walk, set this year for April 6. It will be a chance to raise awareness about available resources and encourage an ongoing conversation about mental health issues among young people.
Students also suggested creating a safe place at Woodgrove, and possibly Loudoun Valley, where kids know they can go to calm down or get help. Kirsten Hein, a Woodgrove senior, said while the counselors are great to talk to, their office is very visible.
“I was having a hard time a year ago and I didn’t want to be seen asking for help,” she said.
Fiore said students who already have a relationship with the school counselors will ask for help, but there are hundreds of students who don’t think they can trust an adult. “We know there’s more who are facing challenges. How do we reach those students who don’t know us?” she asked.
The students suggested promoting the LiveSafe app that allows people to anonymously report a problem, such as a friend who’s unusually upset. Notifications can be sent to school administrators or medical professionals.
The students also plan to create a documentary that features their classmates who have had their share of dark days but have come out on the other side.
Fiore encouraged them to tell others’ success stories to let people who are quietly struggling know they are not that different. “They need to see that there is hope and that they will not feel like this forever,” she said.
With each new idea pitched during last week’s meeting, Bartel nodded in agreement or offered her own suggestions for resources that might have helped her son, a former classmate of the students with whom she’s now partnering.
She said Ryan spent much of his life feeling as if he were on the outside looking in. He had Asperger’s syndrome and was the target of bullying, until high school when he found a group of friends he could relate to. Still, he dipped in and out of depression and kept a lot of his frustrations over school and social challenges to himself.
Bartel said it was as if her son hid behind a mask. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of kids like that. We’ve had this yearning to do something, to reach out to them and help them.”
She’s hopeful that the work of the foundation and the school can 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. If we can save just one life, we’ve done our job.”
Learn more about the Ryan Bartel Foundation at ryanbartelfoundation.org. Follow We’re All Human on Twitter at @WereAllHumanComm.