By Dr. Bob Phillips and Carol Davis
We often think of the boys who died by suicide at our local high school even though it’s been a few years. We’re not even their moms or dads. We are moms and dads of other boys who were their classmates. We are some of the many people in our Fairfax, Virginia community who still think about the boys who left us much too early in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and what we might have done to help.
We think of their moms and dads, too. They are one of the reasons we felt compelled to help organize the Community of Solutions. We want to prevent other parents from having to endure what they’ve had to go through — and will live with forever — by helping provide education and awareness about the problems teenagers face and the solutions we can find to address those issues with our children, our students and our neighbors.
What happened is something we hope never occurs in another community. Three boys at one high school took their lives within six months, a total of seven within two years.
Carol, an instructional designer and adult educator, knew some of the boys through her son and her volunteer work at the high school. Bob, a doctor who works on behalf of an association for family medicine, knew some of the boys through scouts, coaching basketball and through his own sons and daughter. Bob and Carol’s boys were friends and the two started discussing how they could help.
“These were our neighbors, our kids. I could not stand by,” Bob recalls.
He was giving a lecture at the Centers for Disease Control to the very group that performs Epi-Aids — field investigations of epidemics and disease outbreaks — when he learned about the fourth suicide at the high school. He knew the boy, whose name was Ethan. Ethan had coached an elementary school basketball team that his brother played on while Bob coached another team. Bob set about finding out who at the CDC could authorize an investigation into the rash of suicides in Fairfax.
“Bob and I quickly pooled our resources to facilitate a meeting at our community center that was attended by 20 parents, two representatives from Fairfax County Public Schools, and six teens,” Carol recalls.
The meeting agenda intentionally kept the focus away from suicide because we wanted to learn about what our teens were experiencing so that we could help them deal with life stress. It was important that we hear it from their perspective instead of putting our own parental spin on what might be happening. We also agreed we would not attack our school or FCPS. Our approach would be one of building bridges and strengthening relationships. Finding solutions together would be much more productive than looking at what was wrong with our culture.
During the meeting, people shared fears about the pressure to succeed in academics and extracurricular activities. They talked about drugs and alcohol and mentioned depression. A school psychologist opened our eyes to the reasons why students don’t seek out help for depression. 1. They believe they can solve the problem themselves. 2. They think the problem will go away. 3. They don’t think their parents will understand or support them. 4. They are concerned they will be hospitalized. 5. They don’t know where to go for help.
We also learned that evening that there was hunger for education about all of these issues.
We left the meeting agreeing to find answers to our questions and to help. We left that meeting with the hope that our community, and no other community, would ever have to face the reality that their child died by suicide. We knew we were trying to tackle a huge, tragic problem facing our world. We agreed to do something, anything, for our community. That’s when the Community of Solutions (CoS) was born.
Participation in the Community of Solutions swelled as concern swept the community. A group of volunteers — parents, students, teachers, school counselors, psychologists, administrators, and public health behavioral specialists — has helped accomplish the following since we were founded in the spring of 2013:
- Secured resources from the Fairfax County government for behavioral health.
- Facilitated the change of the crisis phone line to a text-based system, more than tripling the number of concerns reported.
- Introduced Mental Health First Aid training into several schools, along with the Community Services Board.
- Hosted mindfulness courses for students and faculty.
- Had student members lead development of teacher-student forums about shared concerns in one school and another may adopt the model.
- Partnered with a sister-city, Palo Alto, California, which also experienced a devastating suicide cluster.
- Worked with the public health department to bring CDC and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to FCPS for the first joint Epi-Aid evaluation of a suicide cluster. They recently completed the second in Palo Alto.
Community of Solutions remains a small, focused group that continues to work at improving student awareness and resilience, building resources for mental health and substance use, and reducing suicide risk. We hope that our story will help galvanize other parents, educators, medical professionals and community members to take action to prevent tragedies like the ones in our community by working together to find solutions.