After friend's suicide, teen cadet launches mental-health first aid push

After losing a fellow sea cadet to suicide in 2016, Ronnie Hannon set out to help others struggling with mental health.

"I wanted to come up with something so that no one else would kill themselves," said Hannon, a 17-year-old chief petty officer 1st class with the Woodstock Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps.

After research and planning, he suggested to his father, Sub-Lt. Doug Hannon, that the Corps deliver mental health first-aid training for its members. Hannon applied to United Way Oxford's Youth United, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Oxford and the Woodstock Navy League for funding.

Delivered by the Canadian Mental Health Association, the course teaches cadets to recognize the signs of someone struggling with mental health and how to help them get assistance, Hannon explained.

The initiative came to a halt when the pandemic struck. "Then," Hannon's father, Doug, said, "I found out we were denied."

That prompted a conversation with a member of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, he said.

Doug Hannon told the representative: "'My cadets take first aid so they can do triage. They can take care of a first aid emergency, but you're telling me they can't talk about their feelings?' So he came back and told me that struck a chord."

Soon after, Woodstock sea cadets ages 16 and older were permitted to receive the certification.

"We were the first Cadet Corps in Canada to receive mental health first aid," said Doug.

The father-son duo formally was honoured for their work at a ceremony last week. Each was presented with a certificate of commendation by officials from the Regional Cadet Support Unit (RCSU-Central), which oversees the cadet program in Ontario.

Describing the honour as "exciting," Ronnie Hannon was surprised when officials called his name because he thought only his dad would receive an award.

"I was like, 'Oh, I thought I was here just to take pictures,'" he said.

His father described his pride standing next to his son. "It was probably the best feeling I've ever had in my life," he said.

The younger Hannon hopes other cadets across Canada will take up the training so they "know what to do if they see another cadet is going through rough times . . . or if they themselves are going through rough times," he said.

His fellow cadet and friend, 15-year-old Alex Morrison, was one of five teenagers to die by suicide in Woodstock in 2016. In June of that year, two months after her death, she was awarded "best bandsman" for her participation – playing clarinet and flute – at cadets. Morrison's family accepted the honour on her behalf.

Hannon believes Morrison would be supportive of his work in bringing mental health training to the cadets.

"I think she'd be really proud," he said.

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If you need someone to talk to or need to be connected to mental health services, there is help available at Talk Suicide Canada (1-833-456-4566 or text 45645) and Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868 or text 686868).

Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press