After Fairfax County student deaths, a renwed focus on mental health

The back-to-back deaths this month of two students connected to Langley High School both shocked the school community and renewed the Fairfax County school system’s focus on teens’ mental health.

Within hours of the news that the two students had killed themselves on consecutive days, school and county officials were gathering to help Langley students and staff cope with their grief and determine what led to the tragedies. The healing process is underway, said School Board member Jane K. Strauss, whose Dranesville district includes the high school. But many answers are still elusive.

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“It’s devastating for the children and the teachers,” Strauss said. “Loss is a part of life, but those holes are never completely filled.”

The efforts at Langley, led by psychologists, social workers and counselors, are part of a larger framework within the Fairfax school system that works behind the scenes to help teenagers handle mental health issues.

Kim Dockery, who oversees such work as the assistant superintendent for special services, said mental health issues can have an enormous impact on students’ success and well-being.

“When you look at the range of issues related to on-time graduation . . . one area we continue to see kids struggle in is mental health issues,” said Dockery, noting that the administration works closely with county officials to help support teens because it isn’t just a school responsibility, it’s also a community responsibility.

According to results from the 2013 county youth survey, approximately 33.9 percent of seniors said they felt sad or hopeless during the previous year. Slightly fewer seniors at Langley, about 31.7 percent, said they felt depressed during that year.

Fred Amico, an assistant principal at Langley, said the school is not unusual in the kinds of issues it faces when it comes to teenagers and mental health.

“I don’t think we have bigger problems than others,” said Amico, a 27-year Fairfax schools veteran. “The challenge is to foster an environment of trust for students and parents to help address problems.”

But the school, located in affluent McLean, is known as one of the best in the county for strong academics and college preparation. Many parents have high-profile jobs in politics, government and business, which can lead students to pressure themselves to perform well in school, said Langley counselor Georgia McKain.

Amico said that in recent years the school has revamped efforts to promote mental health.

He said that last summer, he met with an assistant principal from Cooper Middle School, the main feeder for Langley, to talk about incoming freshman who were considered at risk. Amico called the meeting a preventive measure that helps the Langley staff identify students who may need additional support when they enter high school.

Amico said administrators now have a program known as “Saxon Support,” where staffers meet twice a month to discuss students struggling academically or having attendance problems.

Dockery said that this personalized approach, “by name and by need,” helps the staff come up with individual strategies for helping each student.

Strauss said the two teenagers, who died separately from what county officials said were self­inflicted gunshot wounds, were well known to the Langley administrators who had been “working to get them through” unspecified mental health issues. Dockery said the two teens were among a larger group of students receiving support from the school’s administrators and staff.

“People don’t understand the extent to which our teachers and counselors go to help kids,” Strauss said.

Marcy Kneale, the Fairfax coordinator of school counseling, said that the administration has stepped up efforts to let students help each other. The school system has promoted programs that teach “students how to seek help when they are worried about themselves or a friend.”

McKain said that after a survey revealed that students feel a lot of stress, the school started a “stress less” week. The students come in one week during the spring wearing pajamas, music plays over the schools’ loudspeakers, staffers hand out fruit snacks during breaks, teachers give fewer homework assignments and the teens are encouraged to play with clay in the cafeteria.

Last year, the school hosted a night for parents and had a psychiatrist give a talk about how to help teenagers cope with stress, McKain said.

While parent events at Langley to discuss college opportunities pack the auditorium, hardly any families attended the mental health event, McKain said, possibly because of the stigma surrounding mental health issues.

“We are in a position to help people, so we want to create these open lines of communication,” said Amico, who noted that parents often don’t approach teachers or administrators with problems, fearing their students will get into trouble at school. “We want them to come to us for aid if they need it.”

 
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