W.T. Woodson High School students pause for a moment of reflection in 2014 at the Cav Strong Community Event at Pat Cunningham Stadium in Fairfax, Va. The students circled the football field during the event that closed with candlelight. (Chad Bartlett for The Washington Post)

Two collegiate journalists and graduates of Fairfax County’s W.T. Woodson High School, Caitlin Barbieri and Robyn Smith, reflect on a dark period for their alma mater in hopes of improving mental health care there. Barbieri is studying journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University. Smith is editor-in-chief of the Breeze, the James Madison University student newspaper.

— T. Rees Shapiro

There are specific events in life that will never be forgotten. As students who went to W.T. Woodson High School in 2014, we will always remember when we heard our principal at the time, Jeff Yost, come over the loudspeaker and with a solemn tone announced the death of a fellow student, who became the fifth Woodson teenager to commit suicide in three years.

Two days later, we learned we lost a sixth student to suicide as well.

Caitlin Barbieri (Photo by Caitlin Barbieri) Caitlin Barbieri (Caitlin Barbieri)

The halls had a dismal feel and everyone at the school was consumed by the grief. While we slogged through the routine between classes and homework, we felt the burden of despair along with the weight of our textbooks on our shoulders.

High school has so many walls built up to maintain a strict hierarchy. Teachers teach, students listen. There are dress codes and auditions and tryouts and tests and assignments and participation grades.

But then sometimes, something happens that breaks that norm.

And in these moments, in these periods of time where the walls have broken down and there are no tests and there are no auditions, the students, teachers and administrators are more alike than they seem.

We all forgot how to breathe and depended on each other for fresh air.

Then in April of 2014, The Post published a story about Woodson that discussed the suicides and included quotes from the families of  the students who passed. The article swept through the school and within days everyone at Woodson had read it.  It was one of the only articles written about Woodson that discussed the tragedies as well as the importance of talking to students about mental health.

Since then, there fortunately hasn’t been another suicide at Woodson, partly due to certain changes in the Fairfax County public schools’ approach toward mental health.

Beginning in 2014, the school system partnered with mental health organizations to “to fill gaps that exist in mental health prevention and intervention services,” said schools spokesman John Torre, noting that this year the system’s teachers went through Kognito, a mental health awareness training program that helps educators recognize signs of emotional distress in teens. The school system also set up a mental health crisis texting hotline for students that is monitored 24 hours a day.

But the aftermath of the six suicides at Woodson took a toll on the student body.

Many of us felt there was a stigma surrounding honest discussions about depression at the school. The school did offer counselors and psychiatrists to students who needed help, but many students didn’t feel comfortable opening up to someone who was on the school’s payroll.

Some of us felt that the counselors were there to make the school look good rather than help teenagers feel better. As students, we felt that perhaps Woodson’s administration cared more about its image than its students’ well-being.

That isn’t to say that Woodson was a heartless institution. The suicides affected many different aspects of Woodson and one of them was our school’s reputation, which, in an area as competitive as Fairfax County, we understand was important to maintain.

While it seemed petty to us at the time, we realize now that the rash of suicides meant that our administrators and teachers faced additional pressure to perform, and their obvious stress to address the mental health crisis in the school meant they were fighting for their jobs.

For the most part our day-to-day life at school remained the same, but more than ever before there was a sense of community among students.

Robyn Smith (Photo by Erin L. Williams Robyn Smith (Erin L. Williams)

We all felt like we were in it together, and as students we confided in one another. Some students created Facebook groups to start a class-wide discussion about daily life at Woodson, and it was one of the first times students started talking about how they truly felt. Clubs organized small events, like giving away hot cocoa or lemonade, to make students’ days just a little bit better.

One event that the whole school looked forward to was “Milk and Cookies Day” on the first Wednesday of each month. Created by our former principal, Yost, the event allowed students to pick up free cookies and a carton of milk. We saw it as a small gesture. But at the end of a long day at school, that milk and cookies made us feel appreciated, and we knew it was Yost’s way of rewarding us for all our hard work.

Unfortunately, when Principal Yost retired in September 2014, Milk and Cookies Day retired with him. We were not able to determine why the new administration at Woodson discontinued the beloved tradition, but the students were all very disappointed to see the end of Milk and Cookies Day.

It seems to us that our alma mater is continuing to struggle as it addresses student mental health. But there have been some improvements. A Holocaust survivor came to the school to talk with the students about surviving her harrowing experience. Teachers have held seminars on mindfulness and encouraged students to talk about their feelings.

Just this past week, Woodson had its third annual “Stress Less Laugh More” week. At the first in 2014, students passed out lemonade and hot chocolate. Students smiled, said thank you, and went on their way. It’s improved since then — this year, they had therapy dogs come in to be played with.

But it is clear to us that the school system’s administration as a whole still has a lot of work to do. As Woodson alumnae, we made multiple attempts to contact our former teachers at the school. We were disappointed that they either declined to comment or did not respond to our messages.

Why?

They were instructed not to speak with us about such a touchy subject.

It seems that the stigma surrounding mental health in Fairfax schools still remains.