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Hundreds of Woodstock students rallied to raise awareness about the youth suicide crisis in their city

By Megan Stacey, Dale Carruthers, The London Free Press

WOODSTOCK - 

From pain and frustration, they made something productive.

From the floor of the Ontario legislature, to a square in this small Southwestern Ontario city, their concerns — and their voices — were heard.

Hundreds of teenagers ditched their classes at five Woodstock secondary schools Tuesday, demanding more resources for young people struggling with mental illness in the face of a youth suicide crisis.

Five teens have taken their lives since February — more than the total for the past five years combined — and reported suicide attempts in Oxford County continue to climb, grabbing national attention.

Experts say they can’t explain the alarming numbers. Some are blaming bullying, stress and a lack of mental health services.

Students in the protest walkout streamed out of schools when the clock struck 9 a.m.

Many residents stood outside their homes and peered out windows, while shopkeepers lined Dundas Street, to watch the demonstrators make their way to Museum Square.

“I was bawling my eyes out after seeing everyone come out of the school. It’s truly amazing,” said Mackenzie Gall, 16, who helped organize the walkout.

Students climbed onto the back of a pickup truck to share their stories, one even leading the crowd in a touching rendition of True Colours.

It was a leap of faith for Jada Downing to speak in front of hundreds.

“I was really scared, but I know it’s something I have to do,” said Downing, whose stepsister, Kristi Wilkinson, died by suicide at the end of May.

“It definitely took my breath away to see how many people were here.”

She urged students dealing with mental illness — or any other kind of pain — to reach out for help.

“I’m not ashamed to say I’m not OK, and you shouldn’t be either,” Downing said.

Woodstock police Chief Bill Renton estimated 400 people were gathered in Museum Square.

“Everybody is well behaved,” Renton said, adding police had met with event organizers to ensure public safety. “We put a plan together.”

Teens demanded more resources, including full-time support workers at school and youth mental health beds at the Woodstock Hospital.

Students said they wanted to be heard.

“Our kids have already shown they know how to make some noise. How much louder do you need them to turn it up?” asked Gail Bradfield-Evraire, a local advocate who helped to ­co-ordinate the walkout.

Their voices travelled much farther than Museum Square.

The fallout of the walkout reached Queen’s Park, where MPP Teresa Armstrong (NDP – London-Fanshawe) asked Ontario Deputy Premier Deb Mathews to provide more support services for the Woodstock area.

“The crisis isn’t just in Woodstock, Oxford County, it’s throughout this province,” said Armstrong, an outspoken advocate for mental health.

“When children are telling you that the government is failing them, when they’re actually standing up as a collective group and walking out of classroom(s) to make a point . . . We need to pay attention and we need to stand up for our youth.”

That’s exactly why Ron Bailey went to Museum Square. His daughter, Mandy, died by suicide at the end of February.

He wouldn’t normally support a walkout, Bailey said. But this was different.

“These kids are living it. They have some of the answers . . . They need to be heard, they need to be listened to,” he said.

“I’m so proud of these students to have the will and fortitude to stand up for this.”

Downing said she does it for her sister.

“Kristi was my best friend, and I know that she needed help,” Downing said.

“I want other people to be able to get the help that she needed.”

What students said:

“All, some, or even one of their deaths could have been prevented if the educational system took more action to educate and provide mental health services to students. Stop the silence. We need to talk about mental health. Keeping our struggles silent is killing us.”

— Giulia Vale, Grade 10, Notre Dame Catholic high school.

 

“Never feel that you are alone, because you’re not. There are always people around you with open arms. You just need to fall, and let them catch you.”

— Sydney LaHay, 13, Algonquin public school

 

“I think a lot of kids don’t know that if you call the mental health centre, they’ll come to you. You don’t have to go to them. I’ve been talking to my counsellor at the park everyday.”

— Jada Downing, stepsister of Kristi Wilkinson, who died by suicide.

 

“It is better to know . . . what’s going on in your head (with a diagnosis). Fight back. Fight your own battle, and do your best to win. Do not let it take you down.”

— Emily Cordon, 17, Huron Park secondary school, who read a poem, Red Wrists, about her experience with mental illness.

 

“We need more people recognizing that we need to talk about (suicide), even though we don’t want to. We need people to recognize that it’s extremely difficult to talk about. I struggle (with mental illness), myself.”

— Ariana MacDonald, 15, Woodstock Collegiate Institute:

“Recently, I lost two of my friends due to depression and anxiety. It’s been really tough. I feel like nobody helps us out enough these days.”

— Kayla Quirke, 17, St. Mary’s Catholic high school

“It’s time for change. It’s time for us to make a difference, not just as students but as a community. It’s time for us to come together as one, show people we do care, and change can happen."

— Tai Hope, 16, Woodstock Collegiate Institute

“It’s been really upsetting, our friends passing away, and I feel our school didn’t have enough support. Recently when I went into our guidance office, they told me to go away.”

— Samantha Doerr, 16, St. Mary’s Catholic high school

“The point of standing up together and walking out of school was not to skip out on our education. It was to show that one minute we’re here and the next we aren’t. You never know when it’s going to be the last time you see someone.”

Mackenzie Gall, 16, Huron Park secondary school

One parent’s view:

“I’m a mental health (care) consumer and as an adult there are resources out there. (But) as the mother of a youth that struggled . . . there’s not enough out there for youth. And it’s time for the government to open their wallets.”

— Sheryl Bateman, who brought her 11-year-old son Luke Bateman to Tuesday’s rally

What’s next:

  • Student organizers want teens to spread the word about local support services and be kind to their peers.
  • Adults want to see youth mental health beds at Woodstock Hospital.
  • Local services providers like CMHA acknowledge that more resources are needed.
  • Woodstock mayor and city councillors urging students to band together and support one another.

 

The follow-up:

With Tuesday’s walkout over, and the feel-good moments fading away, organizers and local politicians agreed they’re ready to see “real change.”

For 16-year-old Mackenzie Gall, that means spreading the awareness even further, to students that may be isolated.

“I want to see everyone who was here bring a friend to our next event,” she said.

Adults said they want to see concrete changes in the form of youth mental health beds at Woodstock Hospital.

Mike McMahon, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) branch in Oxford County, acknowledged the students’ demands.

“Our young people are calling for more mental health resources, and we can’t agree more . . . we’re constantly advocating for more provincial-level resources,” McMahon said.

But in the meantime, community leaders are just hoping to connect the youth that are hurting with the support services available in Woodstock, including the CMHA, the Oxford-Elgin Child and Youth Centre and the mental health unit at the Woodstock Hospital.

Woodstock city councillor Shawn Shapton, who first brought forward the idea of organizing to combat youth suicide at a council meeting, shared that message with students at the walkout.

“I want you to take care of each other and know that it’s OK to ask for help,” he said.

“There is hope in our community.”

- Compiled by Megan Stacey, Woodstock Sentinel-Review