Nowhere to turn

Nowhere to turn

Former Langley student Josh Anderson in 2007, with his older sisters Lauren (middle) and Gillian.

Every year, we see a crashed car parked at the gate reminding us of the dangers of drinking and driving. We watch the birth video in health scaring us out of sex. All these resources make an impact, but a student struggling emotionally doesn’t know where to turn.

Langley is one of the most socially challenging schools to survive. Whether we are at the top or bottom of the socail structure we are always being judged and judging one another.

We create an unhealthy atmosphere that leaves us all uncomfortable and insecure. It is because of this atmosphere in Langley and other high schools in Fairfax County that students struggling with mental or emotional issues feel alone and cannot find help. The atmosphere created causes a stigma that surrounds the issue of mental and emotional health.

Guidance counselors are seen more as college advisors, and although many schools like Langley have a school psychologist available, most students are either unaware of this resource or too embarrassed to ever use it.

The lack of focus on mental wellness is a serious problem. There have been several suicides in the county since Josh Anderson’s death (see sidebar right) including four at Westfield High School and others at Oakton, Edison and Lee. Something needs to be done. Schools need to make the effort to spread the word about mental wellness because every life counts.

I remember speaking to Jack Dale regarding the Zero Tolerance policy, with him responding that discipline policies regarding marijuana only affect one percent of the student population. One percent of the student population represents the lives of several students. One percent represents the children of many mothers and fathers with high hopes. Josh was one of the one percent. Josh counted and so does every other individual life in our school system.

We may not realize the prevalence of students struggling mentally and emotionally right around us. Josh was a normal kid. He had friends, he had a girl friend, he was good at sports and had a lot going for him, yet he struggled. Today in Langley I can think of several kids struggling with similar issues and it scares me to think there may be many more that I don’t know about.

The bottom line is kids are struggling all around us in our own school and we as a whole make them uncomfortable. The stigma we’ve created isn’t going to disappear overnight but some sort of action needs to be taken to start wearing it down. Enough is not currently being done by our schools and that needs to change so students like Josh can be saved.

“You can always do more,” said Principal Matthew Ragone. “But the problem is knowing what to do.”

A big sister makes a difference

Lauren Anderson, a 2005 Langley graudate, left her prominent finance position in Atlanta, Georgia to return to Fairfax County to fight to break this stigma in our school system and hopefully save lives of students like her brother, who had nowhere to turn.

Lauren’s younger brother Joshua Anderson took his own life on March 18, 2009. Josh was caught in possession of marijuana at Langley and involuntarily transferred to South Lakes, where he was charged with possession again his junior year. He took his own life while undergoing the disciplinary process for his second marijuana related infraction.

Lauren Anderson ran three focus groups of students attending different FCPS high schools, one of which was comprised of seven Langley students. One common theme that was apprent in all three focus groups was the lack of a place to go when a student is struggling with any mental or emotional issues.

The focus groups also collaborated different ideas of programs and resources they thought would reach students. One idea they came up with was to require every student to meet with a college student majoring in psychology twice a year during school. This requirement would be a way for students who truly need the help to receive it without being isolated or feeling weird about seeking help. It would also be healthy for everyone.

A second idea that came out of the focus groups was creating Active Minds chapters in Fairfax County high schools, particularly Langley and South Lakes. Active Minds is a nonprofit organization that has student run chapters in several universities and some high schools. “We want to bring real people into schools,” said Anderson. The chapters will also bring Active Minds speakers to give speeches to students.

“My hope is for something to be in schools that could have possibly helped Josh. If he had one opportunity to listen to one of the speakers, maybe he could have gotten himself out of that really dark place he got to. These types of programs can reach everyone without forcing kids to raise their hands say they need help,” said Sue Anderson, Josh and Lauren’s mother.