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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Woodson community comes together to focus on suicide prevention

A poster on a Woodson High School hallway has photos of Woodson alumni holding signs showing their support for the school and current students.
Following the presumed suicide of two Woodson High School students in recent days, hundreds of parents, students, and educators packed the school’s auditorium last night to comfort one another and learn about resources on depression and suicide prevention.

Fairfax County Public Schools officials who spoke at the meeting didn’t talk about the details of the two latest incidents or even refer to the victims by name or confirm that they were suicides. Yet, suicide prevention was the topic of the meeting. 

Superintendent Karen Garza (right) speaks to the Woodson community.
Kim Dockery, FCPS assistant superintendent for special services, said the meeting was organized to provide an “opportunity to come together as a community.”

None of the speakers addressed the fact that Woodson has had an unusually high number of suicides—six in the past three years—and instead focused on how to help students get through their grief and ensure they have access to mental health services.

School board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock), however, told the Annandale Blog that “we owe it to our community to determine whether this is an unfortunate coincidence” or see if something else is going on. She noted that the county medical examiner reported there are about five to seven suicides a year involving youths ages 10 to 18. Woodson is just one of 25 high schools in Fairfax County, yet it has experienced three suicides in 2012-13.

The Woodson students at the meeting acknowledged that the pressure to do well academically can be stressful but insisted that there is nothing unique in the climate at Woodson that is causing youths to go over the edge. As Dockery pointed out, “each circumstance is very different.”

FCPS Superintendent Karen Garza plans to convene a group of stakeholders to search for ways to reduce student stress and deal with other problems affecting youths and will hold a summit for students and parents later this spring.

“There is nothing more heartbreaking than the death of a child,” Garza told the audience. “We join with you in supporting this school community. When it comes to the health and well-being of our youth—there is nothing more important than that.”

“No one can completely fathom the loss of a child,” added Douglas Tyson, assistant superintendent for Cluster 3. “We can get through this by working together. We can overcome this, learn, and grow, and prevent these kinds of things from taking place in the future.” He urged students to “keep a positive mind.”

Several Woodson students in the Active Minds Club—Robyn Smith, Lindsay Laiks, Fran Mahon, and Rachel Chalkley—spoke about some of the things that organization is doing to “de-stigmatize mental illness” and offer hope and a helping hand to those affected. The club offers simple things to relieve stress, such as after-school yoga and hot chocolate breaks, and more sustained efforts, like peer-to-peer counseling.

MaryAnn Panarelli, director of the FCPS Office of Intervention and Prevention, explained what goes on in a school after a tragedy. A message sent to the community stating “counselors are available” doesn’t convey the depth of services, she said.

A crisis team is formed, and its members reach out to all the friends and classmates of the deceased, as they are likely to be most affected, Panarelli said. If any students are particularly distressed, counselors call their parents. They also conduct group sessions to talk about the grief process and identify students who might need follow-up sessions. 

There are lots of organizations and resources in the community focusing on mental health.
Different kids have different reactions, she said. Some are very sad, others have trouble sleeping, become unmotivated, or respond with anger. “The main thing is to be compassionate and empathetic and support each other.”

“Be proud of your kids,” she said, noting that the Woodson students responded to the most recent tragedies with “grace and compassion.”

“As difficult and horrible as this time is, your kids will work through it,” she told parents. “Avoid generalizing or labeling these events as part of a pattern. Each situation is a tragic situation unto itself.” Panarelli encouraged parents to “let your kids know it’s okay to laugh and have a good time. Grief comes and goes. It’s okay to forget for a minute.”

Also, she said, let kids know “depression is a treatable mental illness.” Parents should start a conversation about how they would respond if their child talks about being depressed or having a substance abuse problem. “Tell them you can work it out together,” she said, “and ask them to identify three adults they can speak to, because sometimes it’s easier to talk to someone else’s mother or a coach than your own parent.”

“This isn’t just about students. They are part of our community,” so the entire community needs to be involved, and there needs to be “a package of solutions,” including a whole set of resources, said Bob Phillips, a co-founder of Community of Solutions, a group aimed at sharing strategies for helping teens deal with adversity and build resilience.

Community of Solutions has scheduled meetings March 11 at the Mantua Swim and Tennis Club and April 13 at the Truro Swim Club.

Dockery said FCPS will partner with the Fairfax County Health Department, Virginia Department of Health, and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to work on these issues. FCPS will also ensure that all high school websites have easy-to-find mental health information.

Following the meeting, representatives of organizations that deal with suicide prevention and mental health set up information tables in the cafeteria, including Active Minds, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Al-Anon, CrisisLink, and the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board.

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