Although there have been four recent incidents of teen suicides in Fairfax County, the Police Department has planned to offer Suicide Awareness and Intervention Training for its officers since October 2013.
So police and others who work with youth recently took a two-day course at the Criminal Justice Academy in Chantilly to learn how they can help prevent people at immediate risk of suicide from following through.
"This is a collaboration between school social workers, counselors, [police] School Resource Officers [SRO] and school security," said police Lt. Christian Quinn, school liaison commander. "SROs are the liaison between the Police Department and the school system."
"This training will give the officers some perspective and help them establish relationships with these other groups because they see the kids first," he continued. "The goal is to spot kids in crisis and provide them with meaningful intervention before they make tragic choices."
The workshop focused on small-group discussions and skills that could help them save lives. Officers learned how to recognize a call for help, reach out and offer support and connect people with the particular resources they need.
"This is the means to identify kids struggling and maybe not voicing it," said Quinn. "Not everybody who’s depressed commits suicide, and not everybody who’s suicidal expresses this feeling. So we try to see what subtle behaviors they do in advance so we can provide proactive measures."
For example, it helps if police, social workers or counselors can receive a peer referral because of something disturbing or unsettling that a teen posted on social media. Then, said Quinn, "We can put in a safety plan and try some steps to help [that teen]."
SROs get to know students and their friends personally. So often, said Quinn, "The kids will go to the SRO and say, ‘I’m concerned about So and So.’ If it prevents even one suicide, it’s worth the effort."
He said teens often exhibit some telltale behavior signaling they’re having some type of problems. Some of the warning signs to look for are behavioral changes; threatening messages; and a change in grades, friends and/or activities outside of school.
That’s why, said Quinn, "Parental involvement is paramount. If parents see changes in their kids, they can bring it to the attention of the SRO. They and the school social workers and counselors are the first net to provide safety and catch something. Then there can be some intervention and kids can get help, such as a referral for long-term care."
About 30 people signed up for the mid-March class at the Criminal Justice Academy. They were evenly divided between SROs, school security, and school social workers, clinicians and counselors.
Master trainers from the ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) program - offered by a company called LivingWorks - provided the instruction. Also sponsoring the course was the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services; it was funded by a grant.
According to ASIST, as much as 6 percent of the population has serious thoughts of suicide. In Fairfax County, there were 94 suicides in 2012 and 95 in 2013. So far this year, there have been 19 — and 15 of them were teenagers.
"Suicidal persons find all manner of means to accomplish the act," said Quinn. "They don’t choose one way over the other. We take the issue very seriously, and we know this training is critical so the folks on the front line will have a better chance to do something productive to keep kids safe."