The surging suicide rate among Loudoun County’s teens has community members joining forces to talk about life-saving solutions.
Loudoun County Public Schools is putting on a first-of-its-kind symposium for parents and other community members called Navigating the Path to Student Wellness. The free event is from 8:15 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, at Riverside High School, 19019 Upper Belmont Place in Lansdowne.
While the symposium is the result of months of planning from the school system’s Pupil Services Department, organizers say that suicide—and general student wellness—is a community-wide concern that calls for a community-wide solution. With that idea at the forefront, the half-day program will feature speakers from private and public health providers, nonprofit organizations and law enforcement, as well as psychologists and social workers who work in Loudoun’s public schools.
“We want parents and other community members to have knowledge about mental health and wellness strategies that support their children and build resiliency,” said Mary Kealy, assistant superintendent of Pupil Services. “It’s a complex word, but if we can build resiliency in students, they will be able to deal with bullying, suicide issues, substance abuse, and social and academic stresses that life throws at them.”
Attendees can choose from more than 20 concurrent breakout sessions that cover a wide variety of topics, including substance abuse, identifying and treating anxiety, eating disorders, gangs and human trafficking, and effective sport parenting on and off the field.
Author and professor of child development at University of Minnesota Ann Masten is the featured keynote speaker. Masten has spoken internationally about how to build resiliency in children, the subject of her book “Ordinary Magic.”
In an interview this week, Masten described building resiliency almost like building immunity. “You don’t keep them immaculately clean—kids need exposure to optimize their immune system, and in the same way everyone needs experience with tumbling down and getting back up,” she said. “We don’t want to raise our children with no experiences with challenges or adversities or they won’t be equipped for life. Life is full of challenges and adversities.”
The symposium comes as Loudoun County has seen a rise in suicides among young people. In the past two years, 11 people 18 years of age and younger have taken their own lives, according to Friends of Loudoun Mental Health.
Parents of some of the teens who have lost their lives to suicide say the schools could have done more to prevent the tragedies. One set of parents is taking the school system to court. They say a school counselor should have let them know their son was considering suicide.
Kealy, who oversees the division’s mental health services, said that the schools can and should play a “major role” in students’ mental health because they spend most of their time at school.
And, she added, they are doing more. In the spring, her department recommended that the School Board dedicate more money to hire more psychologists, social workers and counselors. Starting this school year, every high school has a “mental health support team” made up of psychologists, social workers, school counselors, and student assistance specialists.
The schools’ role is more preventative than to provide treatment, Kealy said. “If students’ issues are around academics, dating relationships, substance abuse, we have services and people who are specially trained to provide some of that support. If it’s more intensive and ongoing, we can refer to our community partners to make sure they’re getting the ongoing more intensive services that they need.”
She specifically mentioned Friends of Loudoun Mental Health, Inova Loudoun Hospital, the Potomac Psychological Center, and the county’s Department of Mental Health, Substance Abuse, and Developmental Services as public and private groups that the school system regularly partners with.
The Navigating the Path to Student Wellness symposium is designed to be an opportunity for parents to have access to experts from all of those groups.
See the full list of speakers, breakout sessions, and representatives who will be on hand at the event’s resource fair at navigatethepath.com.