Between 2005 and 2012, an average of more than four youth (10-19 years old) per year took their own lives in Fairfax County (including the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church).
However, between 2013 and 2015, that number rose to nearly 10 per year.
To better understand this complex and sensitive issue, we recently became the second county in the nation to create a multidisciplinary Youth Suicide Review Team, which released its first report to the Board of Supervisors’ Health and Human Services Committee last week. The data from the report is a key source for identifying opportunities to strengthen our prevention work, and it is most useful when used in combination with other data sources, such as the Youth Survey.
The team, which is composed of staff members from approximately a dozen county and state agencies and community partners, has two primary goals:
- To identify systems, policy and practice changes to inform suicide prevention efforts; and
- To identify trends in suicide and common risk factors for youth suicide in Fairfax County that can inform and improve efforts related to suicide prevention.
Since it began meeting in March 2015, the team has reviewed 15 incidents of youth who died by suicide. For each case, the team identified risk factors that were present in the individual’s life.
“Risk factors should not be interpreted as causes of suicide, but are nonetheless helpful in identifying the life events, conditions and circumstances that could result in suicide,” says Jesse Ellis, the county’s prevention coordinator.
Here are some of the most common risk factors:
- Expressed thoughts of suicide or discussed death.
- Diagnosis of depression.
- Receiving treatment for depression, substance abuse and other mental health issues.
- Untreated (or potentially harmful treatment of) mental illness.
- Marijuana use.
“There was no individual with only one or two risk factors,” says Ellis. “There were multiple factors and there wasn’t a pattern. That’s what makes it difficult – it can look different for different people.”
The team noted that when many people who interact with youth are aware of the warning signs of suicide, they may be better positioned to notice when there are sudden or drastic changes in multiple risk factors and to support a youth in accessing help.
Based on the team’s research, recommendations to help prevent youth suicide were developed for several different groups, listed below. The recommendations align with many in the Fairfax-Falls Church Children’s Behavioral Health System of Care Blueprint, a three-year action plan for improving behavioral health care for children and adolescents. Most of the report recommendations will be incorporated into the blueprint to provide a framework for implementation and accountability.
- Learn about youth suicide warning signs, what effective treatments look like and how to most effectively support children in treatment. This includes understanding the importance of following treatment plans once therapy or treatment has begun. It also includes understanding the dangers of substance use, especially for individuals with mental health concerns, and knowing how to keep homes safe.
- Immediately seek a mental health evaluation if a child displays any suicide warning signs, regardless of circumstances, and follow the provider’s recommendations.
- Learn about the availability of emergency behavioral health services and how to access them.
- Monitor children’s internet and social media use.
- Help families understand what to look for in a service provider and the importance of following recommendations. Work with families to develop a coordinated treatment plan with the private practitioner so schools can provide appropriate school-based services.
- Support the appropriate diagnosis and treatment of ADHD and other mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.
- Educate students on warning signs and risk factors of depression and suicide and teach help-seeking skills for themselves and others.
- Implement intentional plans to welcome and engage new students when they move into a school.
- Promote an environment that prevents and effectively intervenes in cases of bullying or cyberbullying.
- Provide ongoing outreach and support to students with mental health problems who are receiving homebound education services.
- Promote the use of evidence-based risk assessments, safety plans and treatments for youth with suicidal ideation and behavior.
- Promote access to treatment and services.
- Help families understand what to look for in a service provider and the importance of following recommendations.
- Promote the appropriate diagnosis and evidence-based treatment of mental health disorders that underlie suicidal behavior, including mood, anxiety (including trauma), attention deficit/hyperactivity, eating and substance use disorders.
- Ensure providers are aware of emergency services and how to access them, and include such services as a part of safety planning.
If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or suicidal crisis:
- Call the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board’s Emergency Services line at 703-573-5679
- Or call Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services’ CrisisLink line at 703-527-4077 or text REACHOUT to 85511.
To learn more about how to help a young person who may be at risk, take advantage of these other resources:
- Free online youth suicide prevention training course.
- Youth and adult mental health first aid courses in English and Spanish.
- Free online mental health self-assessment screening.
- Online training for medical professionals to help recognize behavior health issues.
- Additional local and regional information.