WASHINGTON — Two students at a Fairfax County high school died this week and now the school system is working to help students cope with their grief.
Two Langley High School students died just one day apart. Fairfax County police say the body of a 17-year-old male was found in the woods at Scott’s Run at about 1 p.m. Monday. And on Tuesday at about 2:30 p.m., the body of another 17-year-old male was found in a home on Forestville Drive.
Police won’t confirm the identities of the teenagers, but will say that no foul play is suspected and that the deaths are not connected.
A source familiar with both incidents says the deaths are apparently the result of self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
The Langley High School website makes no mention of the deaths, but does have a link advising parents how to talk to children about “painful times.”
Principal Matthew Ragone sent a letter home to parents saying “two very tragic incidents struck our community this week.”
Dr. Thomas Wise, director of behavioral health services at Inova Health Systems in Fairfax, says that when talking about suicide with teenagers, it’s important to listen without judgment. Wise says the message has to be “just talk to us; we’re here for you.”
Wise says that letting kids express their feelings can help them sort things out, and making sure kids know they can speak freely is critical “because unless the kids have somebody to talk to, dangerous situations can occur.”
Lauren Anderson has personal experience with the grief that comes after a suicide. Her younger brother Josh, a Langley High School student who transferred to South Lakes after a suspension, took his own life in 2009. She’s since created a foundation in Josh’s name to help kids. She agrees with Dr. Wise that the way we approach suicidal feelings has to change.
“If the stigma is there, they’re not going to reach out and get help at that time of need,” she says.
Wise says teenagers have a tendency to see their current emotional state as fixed, “that there’s no help, no hope” and that things won’t get better. That’s when stepping in is necessary. Anderson says her foundation works to get kids to see that getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
“That it’s really strong and brave and courageous to speak up and get help,” Anderson says.
After a suicide, schools often employ a team of counselors and Wise says that can be helpful, but “having grief counselors come in for one or two days just is naive and often won’t work.” Wise says grief is a process, not a one-time event. He encourages teachers, counselors and parents to let kids talk as much and as often as they need to and to avoid sending the message that the child should “get over it.”
Wise says that school assemblies where a speaker addresses grief or suicide can be a catalyst for discussion, but should not be the end of the story. “Many kids who are very upset, are reticent to talk about their own feelings” in such a public setting, he says.
Both Wise and Anderson says kids can help each other through tough times by paying attention to signals that something is wrong.
“Look, if one of your friends really seems to be isolating themselves, seems to have trouble sleeping, not taking care of themselves, that’s a real red flag,” says Wise.
Anderson calls teenagers “the last line of defense” against suicide: They often see and hear things that can be the start of a downward spiral. And speaking up for a friend, or for themselves, could be a teenager’s life-saving act.
More information from the Langley High School website: