2020 | Schools

County leaders call for more mental health resources after three student suicides in two weeks

MCPS checking in more on students, offering secure online platform to talk to counselors

After three Montgomery County Public Schools students died by suicide in two weeks, county officials pledged to “do a lot more” to provide mental health resources to children during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Montgomery County Council Member Gabe Albornoz said during a committee meeting Thursday that “three MCPS students have taken their lives” in two weeks, an unusual spike in deaths in the state’s largest school system.

“I just wanted to acknowledge that and let everybody know there will be upcoming committee sessions, because we know the social-emotional impact of the pandemic, and what students are facing right now, is crushing,” Albornoz said during the County Council meeting.

School district spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said in an interview that it is against MCPS policy to disclose the cause of death of students, but confirmed that three students have died in the past two weeks.

Two school district officials, who asked to not be identified, confirmed that the three students died by suicide. Two were middle school students and one was a high school student, officials said. They did not disclose which schools the students attended.

Administrators at both Thomas S. Wootton High School and Silver Spring International Middle School sent messages to community members this week announcing “unexpected” student deaths, but the messages do not say how the students died.

During a school board meeting Thursday afternoon, board member Rebecca Smondrowski said she was “very concerned about some losses we’ve experienced in the last week or two.” She asked MCPS staff members what they are doing to provide mental health resources to students while they are not in school buildings, due to the coronavirus.

Staff members highlighted a new video series that addresses topics like stress management and feelings of isolation; check-in phone calls with students; and opportunities for students to meet virtually and discuss their feelings.

In an interview Thursday night, after the board meeting, member Jeanette Dixon said the three students’ deaths are “really devastating.”

Typically, students would gather to comfort each other and to attend funerals and memorials. But because there is still a ban on large gatherings due to the pandemic, Dixon said she worries about students grieving the death of a classmate.

“I really am worried about them,” Dixon said, urging students to reach out to a friend or trusted adult if they are struggling. “We all have to take care of each other.”

Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Mary Anderson wrote in an email on Thursday afternoon that the county does not have data about how many residents have died by suicide so far in 2020 or in 2019.

In 2018, eight Montgomery County residents between 10 and 19 years old died by suicide, according to state data.

Federal data show teen suicide is on the rise.

In 2017, suicide was the second leading cause of death for people age 10 to 24, with about 11 of every 100,000 people in that group dying of self-inflicted wounds.

Between 2007 and 2017, the suicide rate for people 10 to 14 years old tripled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The growth was even more pronounced for people 15 to 19 years old: The suicide rate increased 76%.

In recent years, MCPS has taken a more direct approach to addressing students’ mental health.

The school district last year launched a new initiative, BeWell 365, that incorporates into the curriculum lessons about managing emotions, resolving conflicts and accessing resources for themselves or friends.

Many schools have incorporated “mindfulness” into their routines, which can include exercises like deep breathing and yoga to help regulate emotions.

Ruschelle Reuben, MCPS’ associate superintendent in the Office of Student and Family Support and Engagement, said the school district has been “very thoughtful and intentional” in ensuring mental health services are available to students during the pandemic.

The district created secure Zoom channels so counselors and psychologists could have confidential meetings with students and sent messages to students explaining how they can alert authorities if they feel they are in an unsafe situation, Reuben said.

Students have had virtual “community circles” to discuss their emotions with each other. School staff members make phone calls to students and families they know need assistance. The school district set up a form to request services or help finding resources.

MCPS also launched a video series called Waymaking, led by Director of School Psychology Christina Conolly.

The videos are on YouTube and on the school district’s website. They tackle topics like stress, feelings of isolation and suicidal ideation.

“My message to students is: You are not alone,” Reuben said in an interview Thursday night. “Just reach out. You’re just an email, a phone call, a text message away from people who care about you and your well-being.”

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Warning sides of suicide:

  • 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 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 (TALK) or
  • Montgomery County 24 Hour Crisis Center at 240-777-4000
  • Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from medical or mental health professionals

Source: Reportingonsuicide.org; Montgomery County