Preventing Teen Suicides

Preventing Teen Suicides

Recent deaths shine light on FCPS suicide prevention programs.

Every 15 seconds, a teen in the United States tries to commit suicide.

Every 90 minutes, one succeeds.

Additional Resources

  • The Prevention Toolkit: a collection of data and resources regarding youth behaviors and risk factors, including depression and suicide, in Fairfax County. The toolkit supports organizations, communities, and individuals in developing data-informed strategies to address identified needs. It includes links to and resources about developing programs, implementing policies, and accessing services. http://www.fairfaxc…">http://www.fairfaxc…

  • The Fairfax County Youth Survey: A joint initiative of Fairfax County Government and Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), the annual survey provides data on student behaviors and risk and protective factors. The 2011-12 school year survey taken by eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders included questions about mental health and suicide. Full results can be found at http://www.fairfaxc….">www.fairfaxcounty.g….

  • Fairfax County’s Prevention System:


  • Stop a Suicide Today


  • Suicide Prevention, Virginia Department of Health:


  • Suicide Prevention, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:…">…

  • Youth Suicide, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:…">…



The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also reports that the number of attempted suicides among teenagers increased from 6.3 percent in 2009 to 7.8 percent in 2011.

In Fairfax County, between four and seven students take their own lives every year, according to the authors of a 60-page report compiled last September by a team of community mental health agencies and Fairfax County Public School specialists.

"The youth rate, despite also being below state and national rates, remains unacceptable. The impact of suicide on families, friends, and communities is immeasurable," the report states.

In a span of 30 days, Fairfax County residents have felt the impact and pain of teen suicide on four separate occasions. In early February, two Langley High School students committed suicide a day apart. Last week, two more students from Woodson High School took their own lives.

"It’s very clear there’s an increased frequency of suicidal behavior and thinking in Fairfax County this winter," said Dr. Peter Robbins, M.D., medical director of The Child & Family Counseling Group in Fairfax. "If you compare this number to last winter, there’s been a higher frequency of this behavior."

While Robbins acknowledges there are "no great answers" to the rash of teen suicides, he has been working with Fairfax County Public Schools to conduct seminars that clue parents in to the warning signs of depression and suicide.

"Numerous studies have shown that identifying at-risk students early is the best chance of prevention," Robbins said.

FAIRFAX COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS is doing that, through an array of programs and services aimed at spotting students at-risk for depression and suicide. Programs range from 24/7 crisis response services to police training to mental health screenings to primary prevention programs.

Being a teenager has never been easy.

But today’s teens are feeling new pressures from many different fronts. According to a new poll, conducted by NPR along with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, nearly 40 percent of parents said their high school students are experiencing added stress from school.

The curriculum is more demanding, homework sessions are longer and gaining admission to college is more competitive, which means the stakes are high for testing.

Add social media to the mix, where students can compare their existence to other teens 24 hours a day on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and other social networks, and the resulting stress can lead to depression and suicidal thoughts.

How can parents, students, friends, teachers help a students through the roller-coaster years of adolescence?

"It is easy to misread depression as normal adolescent turmoil," said Mike Parker, director of Student Services at Thoreau Middle School in Vienna, noting that depression appears to be occurring at a much earlier age, and is a leading risk factor for suicide. "In addition, self-injury has become a growing problem."

In an effort to "proactively address these issues," Thoreau sent a letter to parents in January informing them that the school would offer depression screening to all eighth grade students in February. The screenings were free, voluntary and confidential, a way to assess whether students have symptoms consistent with depression.

The effort to address student stress and prevent teen suicides is a priority for Fairfax County school, according to Ryan McElveen, one of three at-large members of the FCPS school board. In an interview Tuesday, McElveen said that Superintendent Karen Garza is currently working with staff to craft an action plan to address student stress and suicide prevention.

"This plan will involve collaboration with county agencies and include various new strategies, training sessions, and reporting systems. I believe that the Board will fully support these efforts once a finalized plan has been crafted," McElveen said.

One educational tool FCPS currently uses is Youth ACT- Signs of Suicide (SOS), a depression awareness and suicide prevention program. Its primary objectives are to educate teens that depression is a treatable illness and to equip them with techniques to respond to a potential suicide in a friend or family member. The program includes a depression and suicide screening component and is available for middle and high school aged youth.

FCPS is also in the process of forming a Youth Suicide Review Team to review incidences of suicide in the county, analyze trends, and recommend to the Board of Supervisors programmatic and policy solutions to prevent future suicides.

SEMINARS AND WORKSHOPS FOR PARENTS, such as the one hosted by Thoreau’s PTA and facilitated by Robbins, are also offered at a number of schools throughout the county. Despite the shock of the recent suicides, Robbins wants parents to know they do not have to feel helpless or hopeless.

"The most important thing a parent can do is maintain open lines of communication with their child. If a parent has any concern, ask the child directly what they are feeling, and seek guidance from a professional they are comfortable with, whether it’s a pediatrician, primary care doctor, pastor or mental health professional."

McElveen added that students should always feel free to come to school staff or parents with concerns about their classmates.

"Students need to know that we're all in this together as a community, and the school system has the resources to support them. If they are feeling stressed, they should talk with their teachers and counselors and find better ways to strike the important balance between school, extracurriculars, social life and family life," he said.