During Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, Mental Health Task Force Gets to Work

As suicide rates rising at an alarming rate among teens, and an already-strained mental healthcare system races to catch up, Loudoun’s school district is looking to fill the gaps and meet student needs with its Mental Health Taskforce.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the county’s approximately 84,000 students into remote learning in March 2020 and upended normalcy for all students. The isolation, parents and professionals agree, took a toll on children. 

The taskforce, formed by Superintendent Scott Ziegler in May, taps student leaders to assess and share with the unified mental health team where resources fall short. Ziegler said that the main charge of the group is to figure out how to best transition students back to in-person learning. The task force got to work this month, coinciding with Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. According to Chief of Staff Mark Smith, the task force will aim to present to the School Board an analysis of mental health services for students as well as recommendations on changes in January.

A Youth Epidemic

When School Board member Beth Barts (Leesburg) decided to run for office, mental health among youth had shaken her community and resonated with her. She made it one of her goals to fight for more resources for students. She recalled the loss of Jay Gallagher, a Potomac Falls student, to suicide in 2016. She said that the loss rallied the community and forced the school district to acknowledge issues. The pandemic, she said, took a complex and pervasive issue and made it worse.

“We have come a long way since 2016 and the community rallying for additional mental health services, but we still have work to do,” Barts said.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, the number of deaths by suicide among people across the state ages 10-19 increased form five in the first quarter of 2020 to at least 32 deaths in the first quarter of 2021. Additionally, the Centers for Disease control reported that among teens, mental health-related visits to emergency rooms increased by 31% in 2020.

The Loudoun-based Ryan Bartel Foundation, named for a student lost to suicide and whose mission is to prevent youth suicide, surveyed local teens and found that most who are suffering from mental health issues have angst attributable to the pandemic, ranging from worries about transmitting COVID to younger siblings, to re-engaging with peers after nearly two years of distance or hybrid learning. 

A multi-tiered approach 

The task force is just one element of the district’s strategy to ensure resources are thoroughly deployed throughout the county.

In recent years, the district administration cultivated unified mental health teams for each school, which include school psychologists, school social workers, student assistance specialists, school counselors, school nurses, and administrators. 

Supports for students are broken up into tiers. Tier one supports are resources that are offered to all students, such as individual meetings with school counselors. Tier two supports provide students with more targeted assistance. That includes small group meeting to discuss dealing with grief and mental illness. Tier two support also includes programming created by the Ryan Bartel Foundation such as the Sources of Strength program, which connects teens on social networks to create emotional supports and open dialogues. 

Tier three interventions are used when students may need medical intervention or referrals to a psychiatric professional. There, Barts said, is where the community has the largest need.

“School counselors don’t treat, so we need to look at it as a community concern. We need to make sure there are enough therapists to take on the need. … It’s difficult to get services, to get placements,” Barts said.

But, Ziegler said one of the long-term goals of the task force is to find a way to provide therapeutic treatment to students at no cost, which would eliminate the daunting task for parents of finding a provider that takes their particular insurance. While the exploration of such a program is in the early stages, Ziegler said it would look similar to the therapeutic services offered to employees.

“It’s a charge, it’s an aspirational goal. I don’t know if it’s going to come to fruition, I think it’s going to cost a lot of money,” Ziegler said.

To meet the need for mental health services, the School Board added 10 new school counselors this year. There are now 84 full time employees such as school counselors, social workers, and psychologists. Every high school has a psychologist, social worker, and several school counselors. At the elementary school level though, some schools go without even a school counselor. Jones said the district is working to change the ratios so that every elementary school has a counselor.

Organizations like the Ryan Bartel Foundation are bolstering school and community resources. Over the summer, the organization trained school resource officers to deal with mental health emergencies through the program “Sources of Strength.” The SROs are assigned to every school from the Sheriff’s Office and the Leesburg Police Department to secure campuses and aid in student emergencies when necessary.

“I think with all the violence that we’ve had in schools, people are really scared to approach someone in a uniform. The goal was to train them in the same language as sources of strength. That way they can become more of a mentor to students,” Suzie Bartel, Ryan’s mother and the foundation’s chair, said. 

Bartel said that the warning signs for deteriorating mental health among youth are first seen at home. It’s crucial, she said, for parents to ask their children how they’re feeling.

“You don’t think it’s ever going to hit your family. Even if your child is struggling and you decided to get some professional help by consulting a therapist, even then you’ll be in denial that something like this will happen,” she said.

Bartel said that if parents are facing a mental health crisis with their child, to go to the nearest emergency room, as all ER’s are equipped to handle mental health emergencies. For less urgent situations, parents should contact their child’s school counselor for guidance from the unified mental health team.

4 thoughts on “During Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, Mental Health Task Force Gets to Work

  • 2021-09-29 at 4:53 pm

    The schools are so good at educating our children let us put them in charge of mental health said no one ever. Let me guess the unified health team is made up of 100% democrat voters, prove me wrong!

  • 2021-09-29 at 5:16 pm

    In my senior year of high school, a classmate died due to suicide. I still think of the young man at times. Teen suicide is nothing new. But I think it would help if there was more kindness expressed in Loudoun County. Last night at the school board meeting, just hearing the harsh words hurled at board members made me so sad. If it’s doing that to an adult what must it be doing to a child? I know everyone means well. But please remember: Loudoun’s children are watching & learning.

  • 2021-10-03 at 10:04 pm

    Jesus hurled harsh words at the ruling class of evil religious leaders during His public ministry on earth. He stated the truth to their face that common folks wouldn’t dare speak out because they would have been expelled from the temple (which leaders did, this witty blind man whom Jesus miraculously healed because he smart-mouthed those hypocrites—YES!!!! Biblehub, John 9). Excommunication would have been tantamount to woke and cancel on all aspects of their life, not just social.

    If righteous adults can’t speak out on behalf of the students who can’t verbally defend themselves at school due to fear of being expelled from school affecting their career as engineers, doctors, healthcare workers, lawyers, politicians, and teachers, who else will be their voice?

    Some individuals are so void of justice and fairness for students one wonders what kind of school did they attended? Communism-indoctrination school?

    So that individual should speak only for himself since he has 0% ability to defend the innocent, weak, and the oppressed in the current hostage situation.

    Proverbs 31:8 “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of those being crushed.”

    OUR CHILDREN, TWEENS, AND TEENS NEED THE HELP OF THEIR GOD, THEIR CREATOR, THEIR SAVIOR, JESUS CHRIST AND HIS FATHER, GOD. Might Oaks Foundation is successfully reducing suicide among our veterans (staffed by veterans who themselves have experienced severe PTSD) through teachings of Christ—how much greater His powerful impact on young scholars, healing and shielding them from monsters ruling & ruining their academic and social lives
    I had inept teachers in a scam school system. I hated my nineth and tenth grade years. Not one educator turned me to Christ, not even my congregational pastor! When I became a senior, Jesus and God shone into my heart—someone told me about Him. That’s what our students need: Bible classes in each of the grade levels, every semester, every week. That’s the best suicide prevention bar none.

  • 2021-10-05 at 8:31 am

    Parents, prior to your baby, infant, toddler entering into a daycare program and later school take heed to finding ways to build their brain chemistry. Every child sooner or later is exposed to stressful events and these can be good or bad stressful events. When they are exposed, if you have helped build up their brain chemistry prior to and during, they will fair better. Stressful events may include a move, birth of a new baby, parents changing jobs etc or even worse a death in the family. Teachers should also take moments in their busy days to have fun with their students. Recess should be longer than 20 minutes and it should be fun and our schools need to focus on providing opportunities for successful play ground activities. Vitamin D helps too.

    Take the time to build their gaba levels/brain chemistry. How? Play, reading, listening to music, walking, talking etc. Try to keep them in their primary coping and notice if they are experiencing secondary coping. They will start to use defense mechanisms to cope. These are OK but note you have to try and get them back to primary coping levels.

    When brain chemistries dropped, your child may be put on psychotropic meds. These meds may give them the energy to commit suicide. You need to assess them during the times their brain chemistries go up.

    We live in a busy society. Don’t feed into the frenzy. It is OK to paper plate your meals, ask a friend or family for respite so you can get out and away. Don’t feed into your life has to be a show room or keeping up with the JONES. Take the time to talk with your children especially when they are stuck in the car with you. Take the time each evening perhaps at bedtime to share those minutes with your child. If you don’t feel like reading, get a series of books on tapes and play it for them. It will help build their brain chemistry by giving them a time to just think about the story they are listening too and not the stress of the day. Or watch a child appropriate movie before bed time. Watching a movie will provide relief for the whole family to focus on the contents of the movie and away from the stress of the day.

    Teenagers are developmentally into their peers. Stay persistent. Perhaps keep them out of harm’s way by having more friends over to your home OR make them get a job. Keep them busy. If they start to take on adult behaviors … Tell them it is time for them to take on adult responsibilities.

    Move to communities that care about their citizens as evidence by walking or biking trails. Parks and recreation. All of these things help build brain chemistry. Your teenager needs you to stay involved even if they push you away. Get back in their. Stay in contact with your teen’s friends parents.

    God bless.

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