Woodgrove High School student Katie Brantigham, Founder of the Ryan Bartel Foundation Suzie Bartel and Associate Executive Director of A Place to Be Kim Tapper participated in the Teen Suicide Prevention Community Forum Nov. 7 at Inova Loudoun Hospital.
It is not a new phenomena. Teenage stress, angst, depression and thoughts of suicide. And on rare occasion, a teen takes his or her life.
Nationally, the number of teens experiencing depressive episodes rose from 9 percent in 2005 to about 11 percent in 2014, according to a newly released study in the Journal of Pediatrics.
Loudoun County has not been immune to any this, and on Nov. 7 a panel of community leaders convened to highlight programs from local medical, religious, institutional and peer-to-peer backgrounds.
The forum opened with remarks from Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis Randall (D-At Large), whose professional background is in mental health counseling. Neil McNerney, Community Services Board member and adolescent and family counselor, was the moderator.
Randall said she hoped the forum would stimulate more dialogue among these and other groups, and with the community at large, and thanked Inova Loudoun Hospital for hosting it.
The panel consisted of Michelle Petruzzello, Division Director for Loudoun County Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Developmental Services; Doug Wall, Worship Pastor of Leesburg Community Church; John Lody, Director of the Diagnostic and Prevention Services for Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS); Gina Harrison, Clinical Director of Inova Loudoun Hospital Children’s Emergency Department; Kim Tapper, Associate Executive Director of a Place to Be; and Suzie Bartel, Director of the Ryan Bartel Foundation. The audience of about 120 attendees included many affiliated with LCPS as well as students from Freedom, Tuscarora and Woodgrove high schools.
Each panelist spoke from a different perspective and conveyed a common message: have hope, you are not alone.
“Mental health is health and we have to be able to destigmatize it and we have to be able to talk about it or we won’t get past it,” Randall said.
Mental illnesses is often isolating, especially for youth who don’t know what to do or who to go to when they’re experiencing symptoms. Loudoun County Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Developmental Services as well as LCPS, have worked on programs to raise awareness and de-stigmatize mental illness. It’s important to get information on mental illness suicide prevention resources because 90 percent of teens who commit suicide have at least one mental illness, Harrison said.
It is especially important to get this information to teens, because the first person a teenager experiencing mental illness or suicidal thoughts is likely to tell is another teenager, McNerney said. Officials have also been careful of the programs they share with students because the wrong tone or type of information portrayed could alienate students or potentially give them ideas of how to harm themselves.
“This is an area of work where you can do harm,” Lody said.
One of the most difficult aspects of tackling suicide prevention is that teachers and students don’t necessarily know who’s at risk, which is why LCPS has taken a blanket approach in educating students, teachers and parents on the signs and symptom and how to respond. The educational program LCPS currently employs has shown to reduce suicide attempts by 40 to 60 percent, Lody said, though he did not explain this how this metric was derived.
Community partners have also been vital in reaching teens. Organizations like a Place to Be and the Ryan Bartel Foundation stand out, and their presentations were the most personal and compelling of the evening.
A Place to Be uses the arts as a form of therapy. It allows teens to express themselves with other modalities, and then often words follow, Tapper said. The organization has been performing its play, A Will to Survive, based on the story of Will Robinson, a Loudoun Valley High School student who killed himself in January.
The play begins with Will’s story and then universalizes it, Tapper said. Although the show was inspired by suicide, it’s really about hope, love and connection, all told through through music to shine a spotlight on what teens go through today, she said.
“The theme of the show is that there’s a thread that binds us to each other. Doesn’t matter if you look different, doesn’t matter if you think you’re alone, doesn’t matter if you understand what’s going on with the person next to you. There’s a thread that binds us because we are here,” Tapper said. “And our goal is to reach out to each other and keep connected to that thread and to keep trying no matter what.”
The show has inspired students to open up about their experiences with depression and other mental illnesses, which is ultimately the goal of the play: to be a conversation starter. A Will to Survive will tour the county again beginning in February.
“The reason it’s so powerful is that it’s teen-to-teen, so in addition to the arts that kind of reach into the heart, it’s not us out there. It is teenagers delivering the message straight to each other,” Tapper said.
“The messages that we’re hoping people take from this; you’re not alone, this moment will pass, you may not be able to see the future yet but somebody around you can hold your hand until you get there, you are worthy and your life matters to at least one human being even if you don’t know that yet either, you’re not a burden to anybody even if you’re feeling lost, and the final one, the final song in the show is stick around,” she said.
Whereas a Place to Be seeks to start the conversation, the Ryan Bartel Foundation works to sustain it, Bartel said. The foundation was created after Ryan Bartel, 17, committed suicide in October 2014. The outpouring of support from the community made it clear how many lives Ryan had touched and how he had been a pillar of support to his friends.
The foundation seeks to empower the movement of peer-to-peer support and to raise awareness about mental illness, break the stigma, and educate teens to give them safe and productive ways to cope.
“We don’t want the adults to be the leaders for this, because as I said, it’s all about teen-to-teen,” Bartel said. “We’re not very good as adults at changing culture, they are. They have the ability to use their own social networking in order to make a change and why not let them do that?”
The foundation has inspired the founding of the We’re All Human Committee at Woodgrove High School, named after a saying Ryan used to tell his friends. The group has created a documentary about Ryan and other students struggling with mental illness, as well as arranged other events like a 5k Color Run to raise awareness.
Katie Brantingham, a Woodgrove student and member of the We’re All Human Committee, joined the group because she not only believed in its work, it saved her.
“Without hearing the other students and how they got through their issues, I wouldn’t have known that I could get through my issues too and that I wasn’t alone … and hope is one of my favorite words now,” Brantingham said. “I’ve seen a huge, huge change in all of my friends and the school is so open about talking to each other and we feel like we’re more connected and it’s easier to talk about it.”
For those who need immediate assistance, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 24 hours in the day. When calling 911 for assistance within Loudoun County, ask for a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officer.