Loudoun County Public School psychologist Heather Applegate discusses suicide prevention at a community forum in Ashburn on Feb. 2
The forum was scheduled to be held at a room in the county’s school administration building, then relocated to the Broad Run High School auditorium because of growing interest. Like the issue of teenage suicide prevention itself, the concerns of parents, counselors, teachers, public officials and students themselves are exploding.
Representatives of the Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) used the forum on Feb 2 to review their approach to combating teen suicide, including the latest efforts.
“It’s gratifying to have a community of parents so invested in what’s going on in the school system that we had to change the venue,” said LCPS Supervisor of Diagnostic and Prevention Services Heather Applegate, “but it’s obviously also very sad and stressing that it’s this topic that brings out the community members it has.”
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States and has been a growing concern in Loudoun. Last December, a Stone Bridge High School student died from a suicide attempt and is one of more than a half dozen students who have taken their own lives within the past two school years.
At the forum, Applegate described LCPS’s three-tiered approach to suicide prevention.
The foundation is a school system-wide approach to reach out to every ninth grader. Every freshman takes part in the S.O.S. (“Signs of Suicide”) curriculum program. Administered by a school social worker or councilor in either the student’s physical education or health class, it teaches students to look for signs of suicide and where to seek help.
Another version of the program is subsequently administered in 10th, 11th and 12th grades. Similar programs are also shown to teachers and made available to parents. Applegate said it was one of the few programs proven to reduced suicide attempts.
Though this covers all students, a second tier is directed at students who may need extra focus in a group or individualized setting. Students who struggle with emotional issues like anger management, identifying healthy relationships or conflict resolution can be referred to the “Strong Teens” curriculum workbook. The workbook focuses on social and emotional learning through anger management, stress reduction and problem solving.
A smaller percentage of students are identified in the third tier as being at risk of suicide. If a child is identified as a suicide risk, they are referred to their parents and, after further assessment, may be referred to a licensed health professional.
Along with S.O.S., the school system offers several other optional programs. They includes the PEER program, a course elective that helps with healthy personal development and is available at all 15 Loudoun high schools. Students can also voluntarily participate in the Insight Class, which is designed to help students with a substance abuse issue.
Outside the school system, LCPS has partnered with community-based teen suicide prevention groups. By the next academic year, every high school will have an opportunity to attend “A Will to Survive”, a play based on the life of former Loudoun County student Will Robinson, who took his life in 2016. The Ryan Bartel Foundation, named after another student who took his life, has started “We’re All Human” clubs in several county schools. The clubs are designed to bring students from all social groups into a constructive environment to promote mental and emotional well being.
Along with mental health issues, substance abuse and family issues, obsessive perfectionism is a leading risk factor of suicide, said George Mason University associate professor Christine Esposito-Smythers. Perfectionism is of particular concern in Loudoun, the county with the nation’s highest median household income and one of the state’s highest-achieving school districts.
At the forum Esposito-Smythers said their behaviors are particularly dangerous because they don’t express the same outward emotions typically associated with suicidality.
“These are the kids we don’t catch, often times,” Esposito-Smythers said.