All Fairfax County middle school and high school teachers have completed an innovative training program to help staffers identify teens in distress this year, part of a response to a series of student suicides across one of the nation’s largest school systems in 2014.
More than 9,000 Fairfax teachers have taken part in the online Kognito course this school year as part of an expanding effort among administrators and county officials to address student mental health.
The efforts come after the county has grappled, all too frequently, with teen suicides in recent years. In February 2014, two Langley High School students died from suicide within a day of each other. Weeks later, two students at Woodson High School committed suicide within 48 hours. The two deaths at Woodson were among six at the school in three years.
Beginning in late September, three teenage girls at three Fairfax schools died in suicides within a month. In November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention opened an investigation into suicide clusters in the Virginia county.
Last year, the county turned to the virtual Kognito suicide prevention program to address rising concern among Fairfax administrators about teens and depression.
Mary Ann Panarelli, the director of intervention and prevention services, said that the Kognito program was seen as a success, and the school system is expanding the training program to all elementary school teachers and offering a modified version for teen students.
“In Fairfax, we had sort of a tipping point in the community with the number of suicides,” said Laura Yager, head of partnerships and resource development with the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board. “It put suicide at the forefront of people’s thinking. While it’s something we pay attention to every day, I think it just heightens people’s desires to learn more and to learn what to look out for.”
The Kognito training program allows teachers to take part in virtual conversations with teenage avatars showing signs of psychological stress. The hour-long simulation lets teachers practice having conversations with the digital teens to learn how to effectively communicate with students in crisis.
Yager said the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recommends Kognito as a resource. The program costs the county about $100,000 per year, paid this year with a state grant.
Kognito chief executive Ron Goldman said that the key to the program is the immersive environment that resembles a video game. Earlier iterations of similar programs were not as effective, Goldman said, because they did not engage users.
“It was like trying to teach you to ride a bike by having you watch a movie about riding a bike,” Goldman said. Kognito will “transform the way they approach a conversation in real life, like identifying signs of a student showing emotional distress.”
Other versions of the Kognito program have been used by the Department of Veterans Affairs for helping soldiers and their families handle post-traumatic stress disorder.
Yager said the investment in Kognito represents the community’s interest in helping teens in moments of despair.
“I think the community desire to learn more about how to intervene on a topic that can be scary became the reason there was strong interest,” Yager said.
The program’s strategies already have been put to use. Fairfax County officials said a county teacher used his newfound skills to notice one student who appeared to be in distress. He then escorted the student to the counselor’s office to get her help.