Christina Conolly, MCPS director of psychological services, gives a presentation on mental health to a group of students. Credit: Bethany Rodgers

Montgomery County public school students are wondering what to do if a friend shares in confidence that he or she is considering suicide.

They’re thinking about how to deal with academic pressures without falling into anxiety or depression. Or how to approach a school counselor who’s not taking them seriously. Or what responses to expect from school administration after a student death. 

On Tuesday night, about 40 students gathered at the Carver Educational Services Center in Rockville to share their mental health questions and concerns with each other and with Montgomery County Public Schools representatives. Student school board member Matt Post organized the forum in the aftermath of two student suicides in recent months, one involving a teen from Walt Whitman High School and the other a teen from Walter Johnson High School.

 “I think MCPS has made tremendous strides in the past few years on taking students’ mental health seriously, but I think a few recent tragedies have highlighted that we still have a lot more work to do,” Post said. “There is an urgency from students about this issue. They want to see change as quickly as possible because almost every single student I’ve talked to either has suffered from mental health problems or knows someone who is suffering from mental health problems.

At one point during the evening, Post asked the students if they thought the MCPS health curriculum adequately covered mental health issues. No one raised a hand.

“There’s something wrong there,” Post said in a Wednesday morning interview. “On paper, our curriculum is fantastic, but there are a lot of questions about whether that’s getting translated into what’s being taught in the classroom.”

On Tuesday evening, Christina Conolly, the MCPS director of psychological services, gave a presentation on student mental health, beginning by encouraging students to discuss mental health issues openly rather than treating them as taboo.

Mental health “affects everything you do, in terms of how you’re learning, how you’re sleeping, how you’re eating,” she said.

Conolly said one in five students suffers from a mental health disorder; data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 2005 and 2011 show nearly 7 percent of children ages 3 to 17 had ADHD, 3.5 percent had behavioral or conduct problems, 3 percent had anxiety and 2.1 percent had depression.

When one student asked about keeping the secret of a friend who is considering self-harm, Conolly’s response was straightforward: Never do it.

“That is not a secret to ever keep,” Conolly said.

Rachel Herman, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, said some of her peers have sought help from school counselors only to be told they’re being overdramatic. What should they do? she asked.

Conolly said she was sorry that Richard Montgomery students have had this experience. She said counselors have been trained to listen to students who are asking for help, but she said if teens feel dismissed, they can turn to a supervising counselor or school administrators.

Jonathan Brice, MCPS associate superintendent of student and family support and engagement, agreed.

The county’s school board and superintendent are determined “to make sure we have a school system where students are not being turned away,” he said.

Adiba Chowdhury, a sophomore at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, said many students have the mindset that they have to sacrifice their mental health to do well in academics.

“We have an issue in our county: competitiveness,” Brice responded.

Many teens believe they have to cram their schedules with rigorous courses and electives to succeed. He and Conolly reassured the students that they can live well-rounded lives and enjoy their high school years without risking their academic futures.

The students and school officials also discussed the way information spread last year about the suicides of two high school students.

Post asked the students how many of them heard about the teen suicides through social media. Almost all of them raised their hands.

Brice explained that information shared on social media isn’t often reliable, and MCPS has to verify facts before releasing them to the community. And sometimes, the families of the involved students don’t want to share certain details, he said.

“It means we are always going to be behind the social media curve,” he said.

But he and Post agreed that MCPS can look at making sure mental health resources are available in the wake of a tragedy.


Editor’s note: Montgomery County encourages using the following numbers for free and confidential help with suicide prevention:

  • Montgomery County Hotline: 301-738-2255
  • Montgomery County Crisis Center: 240-777-4000
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s website, warning signs of suicide include:

  • talking about wanting to die
  • looking for a way to kill oneself
  • talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • talking about being a burden to others
  • increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
  • sleeping too little or too much
  • withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • displaying extreme mood swings

If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide:

  • Do not leave the person alone
  • Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
  • Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255
  • Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional

If you are in crisis, you can also send a message to the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

The website for the county’s BTheOne public awareness campaign lists additional suicide prevention resources.