At a special training seminar for Fairfax County teenagers over the summer, LaNaya Butler learned how to help her high school classmates in times of crisis.
Just days into the start of the school year last month, Butler, 16, a junior at Mount Vernon High School, found the skills she had picked up in the Youth Mental Health First Aid program useful. In the early hours of Sept. 15, her close friend since the third grade, Gerard Gomez, was shot and killed after a dispute at a hotel party. Gomez, also a Mount Vernon junior, died on the sidewalk outside the Marriott Residence Inn in Tysons Corner.
“I don’t know why he had to go, but I feel like he’s always with me,” Butler said. She credits the training she received with helping her handle her grief while also providing assistance to other students as they tried to cope with the tragedy.
Butler organized a candlelight vigil for Gomez the Sunday he died. She said more than 200 people attended the gathering, at which Gomez’s friends and other Mount Vernon students shared memories and tears.
“I don’t think I would have taken leadership if not for the training,” she said.
Dede Bailer, coordinator of psychology services for Fairfax County public schools, said the mental health program was offered to students for the first time in August.
Led by the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board’s wellness and health program, the two-day training course helped teens identify ways to recognize signs of depression and taught them how to provide reassurance to those facing crises. About a dozen students took part in the first offering of the course, which included role-playing scenarios and informational sessions about the symptoms of mental illness.
The course is slated to open to more students in October.
The training aims to help students “make some judgment of risk for suicide or self-harm” in others, Bailer said. Students learn how they can help their classmates avoid serious problems by listening to them.
“Most suicidal ideation is temporary in nature,” Bailer said. “It’s a situational stressor, and having someone to talk to can help you see some light ahead.”
Miranda Bricker, 16, a junior at James Madison High School, said that she has friends who have dealt with mental health issues and that the training has improved her ability to relate to them.
“It’s helped me communicate with them and be a better listener and a better friend to them,” Bricker said.
The course helped Aoife Leogue, a Madison senior, become more aware of the problems some teenagers face in school, she said.
“A lot of people are afraid to admit their problems,” Leogue, 17, said. “But there are always ways to get help.”
Many of Benjamin Goldberg’s senior classmates at Madison are experiencing high amounts of stress as they apply to colleges and perfect the essays they will submit to admissions offices, he said. Goldberg, 17, said he’s noticed the effect it has had on his friends.
“It’s really helpful to know how to identify when someone is going through a mental crisis,” Goldberg said. “It is absolutely true that just because a person doesn’t appear to be sad or depressed or abnormal, a person may still have issues on the inside.”
Dane Charneco, a psychologist at Madison, said today’s teenagers are expected to be involved in academics, athletics and other extracurricular activities while balancing their social lives in school and online.
“They have so many more pressures,” Charneco said, noting that the program works to address the stigmas associated with mental health issues among teens.
Melinda Bloomquist, an English teacher at Mount Vernon High School, said teenagers are on the front lines of mental health awareness when it comes to their peers. An adviser at the crisis seminar Butler attended, Bloomquist said teenagers can be critical to each other in desperate times.
“They are closest to each other and they trust each other,” Bloomquist said. “They are more comfortable talking to each other.”
Bloomquist said she saw Butler facing Gomez’s death and her grieving with poise.
“I’ve noticed her employing very mature coping strategies in dealing with her grief,” Bloomquist said. “Not typical of a teenager her age, she’s stepped away from it and set an example for her peers to handle immense grief when something tragic like this happens.”