Curbing Teen Suicide in Loudoun County

Written by Chris Tuttle

On October 15th, 2014, the pressure of life became too much for Woodgrove High School student Ryan Bartel. The teenager who had loved history and military strategy ever since he had received an encyclopedia as a young boy, wrote a note to his parents and told them that he couldn’t “perform and operate in society any longer.” Ryan took his own life, three months before turning eighteen.

I met with Ryan’s mother on a windy, spring day in Purcellville, Virginia. Suzie Bartel is a small- framed, soft-spoken woman whose faint British accent reveals itself as she begins to speak. Her friendliness is unmistakable, yet her eyes bear the burden of sorrow. It’s now more than two and a half years after her son’s suicide, but the pain has forever changed her and she is eager to share her message.

“I can’t go back and make my life the way it was, so I had to redefine who I am as a person. I will never be the same, ” she says.

Bartel is far from being alone with her intolerable pain, the empty chair around the dinner table, and the void in her heart. In 2014, suicide became the second leading cause of death among teens in the US, surpassing cancer. More and more young people are making the fatal decision to end their lives. While each tragedy is marked with its own unique set of circumstances, many share feelings of low self-esteem and depression.

Bartel attributes the rise in suicide among young people to a culture which is driven around performance and high expectations. Teens feel the pressure to perform well, and some are having difficulties living up to society’s expectations. For example, a student with a learning disability may start to have feelings of inadequacy and anxiety.

“Anxieties can turn into depression if not dealt with properly,” Bartel says. “We knew that Ryan was experiencing depression, and he was seeing a therapist weekly. But we had no idea how severe it was. We didn’t see it coming.”

The idyllic setting of Loudoun County with its rolling hills, horse farms and wineries has experienced its share of heartache when it comes to teenage suicide in recent years. In addition to Ryan Bartel’s suicide in October 2014, seventeen year-old Christian Sierra was shot and killed by a Purcellville police officer in May that same year, after threatening to kill himself and lunging at a police officer with a knife according to local news sources.

On January 14, 2016, seventeen year old Will Robinson took his own life at a playground close to Loudoun Valley High School where he was a student. Less than a month later, on February 3, eighteen year old Potomac Falls High School Student, Jay Gallagher, ended his life at his family home. Tragically, just last week, a student from Harmony Middle School also took her own life.

The increase in suicides has alarmed parents, educators and politicians alike. In Loudoun County, many attempts have been put in place to try to curb teen suicides and improve the safety net for troubled teens so they do not reach a point where they feel that taking their own lives is the only solution.

“As part of the upcoming budget, funds have been reallocated to expand mental health services for high school students by creating unified support teams comprised of psychologists, social workers, school counselors and student assistance specialists,” Loudoun County Public School Information Officer Wayde Byard explains. “We have held seminars for parents on suicide prevention which were well attended. In addition, we have covered and promoted mental health awareness events for students such as the “We are All Human” walks at Woodgrove, Loudoun Valley and Heritage High School.”

When Ryan Bartel took his life in 2014, his parents formed The Ryan Bartel Foundation to help other teens in similar situations to Ryan’s. They wanted to create a channel for teens to express themselves and to remove the stigma associated with depression and mental illness to make it socially acceptable for teens to reach out for help if they are troubled. In April 2016, an annual “We are all Human Walk” was launched at Woodgrove High School in partnership with the Ryan Bartel Foundation to raise awareness about mental health issues among high school students and to encourage support for troubled peers. The Walk was repeated in April 2017 at Woodgrove, and Loudoun Valley High School and Heritage High School also hosted their own walks for the first time.

Many are asking if public schools and its counselors are doing enough to reach out to students who are struggling with mental health issues and depression. When Jay Gallagher committed suicide in February 2016, it was revealed that a female friend of his had contacted his counselor, Richard Bader, at Potomac Falls High School, informing him that Jay had felt depressed and was struggling with high expectations and strained relationships. The friend said that Jay wanted to seek help but wasn’t sure how to go about getting it and asked Bader to reach out to Jay, which he did. Although Bader met with Jay, he never notified his parents of the meeting, nor did he fill out the suicide screening form even though the female friend had informed him that Jay was having suicidal thoughts. Three weeks later, Jay took his own life.

Jay Gallagher’s parents have filed a law suit against Bader for negligence and for ignoring school guidelines. They claim that if they had been notified of their son’s troubles, they would have been able to save him. The attorney for Mr. Bader, Julia Judkins, has argued that the 18-year old did not want Bader to inform his parents and had denied that he was suicidal.

Though no legal outcome has been reached in the Jay Gallagher’s wrongful death lawsuit, Loudoun County Public School counselors have taken steps to increase their efforts to prevent teen suicides. According to Woodgrove High School counselor Katherine Warehime, if a student is struggling with depression, LCPS now has two counselors that conduct a suicide protocol for that student, instead of just the one who is assigned to the student at the beginning of the school year. Counselors focus on emotional counseling and maintain close contact with the student’s parents throughout the process. Mrs. Warehime also stated that it’s very helpful for struggling students to also follow up with a licensed therapist to continue their counseling outside of school hours.

It is clear that the recent surge in teen suicide has led to an increased awareness of the struggles that many teens are facing in today’s society. Added pressure to perform and to fit in lead some to fight a daily battle against anxiety and depression. This is a fight many are likely to lose unless they get the help they need.

No one knows the heartache that families and friends experience when a teen commits suicide better than Suzie Bartel. She has found a way to honor her son’s memory through the Ryan Bartel Foundation, and she hopes that by helping struggling teens and by providing the proper emotional tools to their peers, lives will be saved.

If I can save one person, this is all worth it,” concludes Suzie Bartel.