School Leaders Highlight Teen Suicide Prevention Efforts

The community concern about the rise in teen suicides was on full display last night as a large crowd of parents gathered in the Broad Run High School auditorium to learn more about the warning signs and available support services.

The suicide prevention program was the second in a series of mental health and wellness parent seminars planned by the Loudoun County Public School’s Department of Pupil Services this year.

During the two-hour session, parents were briefed on behaviors to be on alert for in a suicidal teen, what to expect from a treatment counselor, and tools that can help families through difficult times.

Heather Applegate

Heather Applegate, the school system’s supervisor of Diagnostic and Prevention Services, said seeing such a large crowd at the meeting was “bittersweet,” showing strong community support, but also widespread concern about the threat facing children.

Applegate explained the assessment system used by trained school personnel to evaluate students showing signs of suicidality. She said that dozens of suicide assessments are conducted by the staff each week. School personnel don’t provide treatment, but use the assessment to help identify when professional treatment is needed.

She also explained recent efforts to increase suicide prevention education, with new programs being taught in health classes in each of the high school grade levels. This year, special training was offered to teachers and some parents. She also heighted the work of PEER programs at all 15 high schools that allow students to address topics like bullying and diversity.       Applegate also cited efforts to expand the student-led We’re All Human Committee, which began at Woodgrove High School, and to sponsor performances of “A Will to Survive,” a musical inspired by the death of a Loudoun Valley student, in every high school.

The school-based programs, Applegate said, are geared toward giving teens the tools to cope with depression and stress and to encourage them and their friends to speak up when someone’s in danger.

A slide from the Feb. 2 program shows the high risk factors in teen suicide.

The parents also heard from Christianne Esposito-Smythers, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at George Mason University who specialize in treating patients with suicide risks.

She encouraged parents to be aware of warning signs and said that most teens considering suicide do want help and ask for it, although more often to a friend than a parent. Stressful family situations, substance and alcohol abuse, pressure to achieve perfection, and trauma such as emotional or sexual abuse are among the factors that increase the risks of suicide, she said.

Esposito-Smythers stressed the importance of working with a trained evidence-based therapist when seeking treatment. And she said it was critical that parents are involved in the sessions.

Esposito-Smythers recommended three internet resources for those seeking more information:

Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies

While school counselors and the county’s Department of Mental Health offer resources to help concerned students and parents, the county’s Crisis Intervention Team is equipped to handle emergency cases. Trained staff members can be reached by calling 911 and asking for a CIT officer.

The next mental health and wellness parent seminar is scheduled for Feb. 16 and will provide information on promoting healthy teen relationships. Learn more at or by calling 571-252-6540.

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