Mental Health Leaders Pitch Countywide Teen Suicide Prevention Programs

Loudoun mental health professionals have proposed a battery of programs—from simple to sweeping—to bring the county together around preventing teen suicide.

At their first meeting back from the August recess, county supervisors heard a report prepared over six months by the Community Services Board and the Department of Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Developmental Services on what Loudoun is doing to curb teen suicide—and what more could be done.

The Community Services Board and mental health department launched into the report in response to an upsurge in teen suicide in Loudoun—in the past two years, 11 people 18 years of age and younger have taken their own lives.

“We know for every youth who completes suicide, there is a family who mourns, a neighborhood who mourns, a faith community who mourns, a school and a county who mourns,” said mental health department division director Michelle Petruzzello.

Loudoun’s continuum of care already includes a great number of programs and resources, through government programs, schools, and nonprofit organizations.

“We don’t really lack programs,” board Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) said during a presentation of the report Tuesday night. “What we seem to lack is communication of those programs, and people just are not aware of the resources that are there to help them.”

The report lists more than 20 existing programs and resources. But it also includes five recommendations for what more the county could be doing, ranging from relatively straightforward—such as including contact information about mental health resources in any county press release about mental health, or expanding mental health first aid training to more people—to ambitious and big-picture ideas.

“The focus is on more than preventing youth suicide,” Petruzzello said. “It’s on mitigating risk factors, promoting protective factors, and building resilience in youth.”

Professional counselor and Community Services Board member Neil McNerney said he’s excited about one recommendation in particular: to support peer-to-peer mental health networks, like We’re All Human, which helps teenagers provide a support network for each other rather than relying on teachers and parents to spot a problem before it’s too late. He said the county can help put the spotlight on those programs, to help them grow in awareness and effect.

“There are many people who don’t know about the Ryan Bartel Foundation, and the We’re All Human clubs,” McNerney said. The Ryan Bartel Foundation is named for a Woodgrove High School senior who took his own life. His mother, Suzie Bartel, launched the foundation to help prevent further suicides by empowering young people to help each other, and to that end has helped start We’re All Human clubs at many of the county’s high schools.

Those student-run clubs work toward the same goal, raising awareness with an annual walk and assembly to raise awareness and connectedness among students.

Other recommendations could help to get all those resources working together—one, to create a single, searchable online portal of resources in Loudoun, and another to offer an eight-hour mental health first aid training throughout the county.

“I had the opportunity to take that training, and even as a licensed professional counselor, I learned things that still I use on a daily basis,” McNerney said. He said not only would the training be useful by teaching more people how to help a person in crisis, but it would give mental health professionals a common framework and language for collaboration.

And the group called for a new organization—a suicide review team that would review the deaths of people 18 years and younger. Although no detailed proposal for the team has been made, it would work to prevent suicides, promote mental health, and look at how Loudoun should respond to trends in suicide.

“Whereas much is known about the phenomenon of youth suicide—the risk factors, the protective factors—we believe that each incident deserves a comprehensive, individual review,” said Community Services Board Vice Chairman Scott Zeiter. “This review will allow the community to more fully understand the complex dynamics that produce the tragedy, and the process often reveals opportunities for systemic improvement within the continuum of care.”

Zeiter pointed out there is precedent for such a team. Fairfax County, for example, has a Youth Suicide Review Team including representatives from a variety of organizations, such as the school system, the department of family services, the fire and rescue and police departments, the health department, and the Virginia office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Fairfax’s Youth Suicide Review Team meets almost every month to review all teenage suicides in Fairfax. The team’s meetings are confidential and closed to the public, and they have access to confidential health information. Its recommendations are compiled annually and are not attributed to any specific case.

According to its protocols, in its reviews, Fairfax’s team looks for precipitating factors, risk and protective factors prior to the death, warning signs, interventions, any gaps in services, system failures or weaknesses associated with the death, and recommendations for policy or systems improvement.

Community Service Board Chairman Angelo Wider and member Neil McNerney present their recommendations to the Board of Supervisors Wednesday, Sept. 5. (Renss Greene/Loudoun Now)

The report and recommendations got an enthusiastic reception from county supervisors, who appreciated the proposals’ holistic, county-wide approach.

“This isn’t just the job of the Community Services Board, and this isn’t just the job of Loudoun County Public Schools,” Buona said. “This is the community’s job.”

“Youth suicide’s very different,” said County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), a career mental health professional. “Youth suicide’s a lot more impulsive than adult suicide.”

Zeiter said the biggest difference is that among young people, who spend a lot of time in social environments, suicide is contagious. “So you often see copycat events following an event.”

While there weren’t any funding requests or action items in the proposals, McNerney and Petruzello have said they will keep refining those recommendations, and McNerney said they could come with concrete requests later.

“Our teens are in the schools for such a long period of time during the day, the school system has done an excellent job of saying we are going to help with mental health issues as much as we can, and they’re continuing to rise to that challenge,” McNerney said. “We don’t want to them say, ‘OK, this is a school issue,’ because it’s not a school issue. It’s a community issue.”

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