News

The focus now needs to be on help and prevention, one expert says

By Randy Richmond, The London Free Press

Don’t call it an epidemic.

Call it a cluster.

The number of suicides and suicide attempts in Woodstock over the past five months is statistically high and a reason to act, says Renee Ouimet, president of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

But the language surrounding suicide is laden with stigma and misinformation, so she advises caution in describing what’s happening.

“An epidemic is something that is catching. It sounds like you are going to catch it.”

An epidemic is unstoppable.

None of that is true, Ouimet said.

There’s no disputing there’s a statistically high cluster of suicides in Woodstock, a point dramatically driven home Tuesday when hundreds of high school students in the city of nearly 40,000, frustrated, skipped classes to demand more be done for area young people needing help.

Five teens in the area have taken their lives this year, and another 17 have attempted suicide.

The number of suicides among Canadians aged 15 to 19 has hovered around 200 each year from 2008 to 2012, according to Statistics Canada.

The highest of those years, 227 in 2012, means on average about 19 teenagers a month died across the entire country.

Woodstock alone this year is accounting for one of those deaths a month.

Getting behind the numbers is difficult, Ouimet said.

“It is always pretty complex. It is youth saying they are feeling hopeless, they are not getting the help, the kind of mental health services they need.”

A cluster of suicides among youth can spring up quickly, as each message of despair feeds the next, she said.

“It can seem like getting permission to send a message of hopelessness.”

The language around suicide, especially in Woodstock now, has to focus on helping and preventing, Ouimet said.

“The community needs to come together because suicide prevention is a community solution.”

That means more than teachers and emergency workers need to be trained, Ouimet said.

Parents and teenagers themselves can be taught how to approach the subject and how to respond to people who are suicidal, she said.

“We need to educate youth on what you say and what to do, and how to get help.”

If social media has played a role in the cluster of suicides in Woodstock, it can help play a solution, she said.

Mental health agencies need to use social media more frequently to promote how teenagers can get help, and a tweet or a Facebook post from someone suggesting they are going to harm themselves should prompt action from friends and family.

“When you see that, ask, ‘Where are you? I want to talk. I want to help,’” Ouimet said. “Maybe we need to ask youth themselves what they need on social media to help keep safe.”

The point is to keep talking about suicide, to use language that neither judges nor glorifies the act, she said.

“Woodstock is talking openly about it and that is a good start.” 

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