FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) - Federal and local health officials are investigating potential suicide clusters in Fairfax County following the deaths of three teenage girls since September.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the county health department are looking into the suicides at the request of state health officials. This week, CDC experts led focus groups with parents at eight area high schools to identify risk factors and suicide-prevention strategies.
"Suicide is a very complex issue," Asha Ivey-Stephenson, a behavioral scientist with the CDC in Atlanta, told The Washington Post. "It's something that is preventable, and it's a public health problem."
Three Fairfax County teenage girls have died in apparent suicides since September, an alarming rate for a county that saw 13 suicides among girls between 2003 and 2013.
Among the three deaths was that of 16-year-old Cara Lynn Golias, who hanged herself from a railroad bridge Sept. 28. Cara would have turned 17 on Oct. 30.
"It took everybody by surprise," said her father, Michael Golias. "That's why we're still trying to figure out what happened."
Cara was a star cross-country runner, had earned the grand prize at a regional science fair for her microbiology research on E. coli, and she made all As at Fairfax High School, her father said.
"It's like, 'Cara, why did you do this? You were loved. You had a great heart,'" Michael Golias said.
"Her future looked so bright," he said. "She was intelligent. She had great friends. She was part of the church group. She had loving parents and a loving family. She was involved with team sports. She was well-liked. But nothing that we saw could have led to something like this."
Even before the deaths of Cara and the two other teenage girls - a 17-year-old South Lakes High senior and a 15-year-old Robinson Secondary sophomore - the Fairfax County school system had begun overhauling its teen mental-health policies in the wake of six suicides in three years at W.T. Woodson High School and two suicides within 24 hours last fall at Langley High School.
Kim Dockery, the county's chief academic officer, said the school system has received multiple grants to focus on students' mental health, including $50,000 in federal aid targeted for Woodson High. Another grant from the state will allow the school system to spend $2.8 million over the next five years on expanding a mental-health first-aid program.
This semester, all middle school and high school teachers are enrolled in mental-health awareness training to help identify teens in distress, and a new suicide help line has been set up to allow troubled teens to send text messages, Dockery said.
Since Cara Lynn Golias' apparent suicide, a memorial fund in her honor has raised more than $16,000 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Her father encouraged parents to do whatever it takes to help their children if they're in distress, including talking to other teens who might see signs that parents miss.
He said his daughter had been taking part in mental-health therapy in the months before she died.
"Do what you need to do to ensure that this doesn't happen to your child," Golias said. "Seek out professional help. Shower your child with love and understanding. Be there for your child."