News

Oxford looks for answers as fifth young person dies by suicide since the start of 2016

By Megan Stacey, The London Free Press

Just days after a public meeting to address a rash of youth suicides in the community, another young resident in Woodstock died by suicide.

There's little doubt that Oxford is facing a suicide emergency.

The most recent loss marks at least the fifth young person to die by suicide this year - that works out to one per month since the start of 2016 - with some anecdotal reports pegging an even higher number. At a public meeting last week, the Woodstock Police Service also reported 17 suicide attempts in the same time period.

"Our attempted suicide numbers are high, and they are indicative of a community that's experiencing an ongoing crisis," said Mike McMahon, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association branch in Oxford.

"When our community hears about a youth dying by suicide, our crisis level goes up for everybody we serve because this is something that affects everybody."

Talk of an alarming so-called suicide pact was circulating on social media, too.

Woodstock police Chief Bill Renton said the force fully investigated that report when it first arose.

"We've heard about this alleged suicide pact but we have absolutely no evidence to support it.

We've looked into all the sources of information," Renton said. "We have not been able to substantiate anything."

But whispers of the suicide pact spread like wildfire.

Renton said it's nearly impossible to extinguish rumours online. "Unfortunately, in social media, things just get perpetuated and amplified so greatly that it's very concerning and very difficult to try and manage that type of information," he said.

A potential suicide pact is naturally a point of great concern for a community that is mourning five bright young lights and intervening to save dozens more.

But there are few answers to the burning question in Oxford: why?

"For the people that are feeling unwell, there is a sense of hopelessness," McMahon said. "Our youth, for a reason that hasn't been properly explored, are looking at suicide as a viable alternative to the pain and sadness that they're feeling."

The father of five said he didn't have an answer as to why.

The suicide crisis was so concerning for a Sweaburg mother that she wracked her brain for a way to encourage local teens to share their thoughts on the matter.

"I've been waiting for someone to open a Facebook page," said Gail Bradfield-Evraire. "I was laying in bed and I thought 'let's see what happens.'" That's when she created a public group called "Youth Suicide Prevention in Woodstock Ontario."

The group had amassed more than 3,000 members in 24 hours. And the momentum was growing, with teens brainstorming ideas for fundraisers, youth groups and memorials.

Bradfield-Evraire wants that little corner of the Internet to be an open and accessible space for local youth to share their concerns and honour the friends they have lost.

"These kids talk about their friends. It's healing for them."

And though there are hundreds, if not thousands, of adults waiting in the online wings, Bradfield-Evraire is keeping the group as a platform for youth.

Empowering local students to talk to friends about their feelings - especially when the sadness feels overwhelming - is the key, according to McMahon.

"I have 50 regulated health professionals that I would say are among the top in the province at providing mental health services, but the actual front-line responders in the cases with youth need to be peers," he said."We have to get at the sadness,and the hope ahead. We have to begin to train youth to have conversations about how they're feeling with each other."

Bradfield-Evraire said the Youth Suicide Prevention Facebook group had already resulted in an intervention for one young person on Monday afternoon.

"That's a direct result of this site," she said. "The proof is in the pudding. It's helping."

McMahon said he wants to see training like safeTALK - a program that teaches individuals how to support those with thoughts of suicide and direct them to intervention resources - embedded in the curriculum.

"This can be done. Every teacher can be trained as a facilitator. We need to continue to advocate for that," he said.

"Some will say that having youth talk about suicide with other youth causes an increase in suicide. There's no way for me to explain the degree to which that is false," McMahon added.

Having the conversations about suicide actually increases safety, he said.

That goes for parents, too.

Bradfield-Evraire, who has a social service diploma, said she worked hard to keep the lines of communication open with her two sons, even when it wasn't fun.

"I know so much about them that I don't want to know," she said with a chuckle.

But that closeness also makes it easy to spot when they're feeling down.

"We readily have those conversations. I ask them 'are you depressed?' And it's just the off-the-cuff question of 'do you need some counselling?'" she said, adding that mental wellness is an everyday conversation in her household.

And in the midst of a suicide crisis, it's on the minds and mouths of many in Oxford.

"I like to quote Ben Counsell (a pastor at Calvary Church)," McMahon said when asked for his advice to parents.

"Fill these youth with hope and light and energy - not in a religious sense, but in whatever sense makes sense - so they can get through the current crisis and we can move on, as a community, to find new ways of keeping our young people safe."

mstacey@postmedia.com