Woodstock youth suicides have community seeking answers

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Woodstock youth suicides have community seeking answers

In the last four months, five young people have taken their own lives in the small southwestern Ontario city of Woodstock, and officials say there have been many more suicide attempts.

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) is calling it a crisis and convening experts from around the province and the country to help deal with the situation in the community of 38,000. 

"We've never experienced this before," Mike McMahon, the CMHA's executive director for Oxford County, told CBC News. "This is a crisis in our community."

Police say there have been five youth suicides in Woodstock this year and at least 36 suicide attempts in Oxford County, which encompasses Woodstock and seven neighbouring communities. There were no youth suicides last year.

Tai Hope, a Grade 11 student at Woodstock Collegiate Institute, recalls coming to school on Monday after news broke that a fellow student had taken her own life.

"I walked into the school late and all the teachers were at a meeting in the library, and all the students were in the hallways and a lot of them were crying," Tai said. "I wasn't crying originally when I walked into the school. Then I saw a couple of my friends from my biology class. ... It took me down too."

Mackenzie Gall, a 16-year-old student at Huron Park Secondary School, said news of suicides and suicide attempts spreads quickly among students and has a huge emotional impact on everyone. 

"Woodstock is a really small town. Everybody knows everybody and everybody knows what's going on," she said. "A lot of people are really upset about it and are not handling it well."

'The social media effect' 

As to why this is happening, nobody has a clear answer. Students told CBC News that stress, anxiety and depression are widespread among their peers and that bullying is also an issue.  

But McMahon said suicide is too complex to speculate on people's individual motivations. 

"We don't know why the numbers are so high. We do know one thing — different than when I was a child: youth are aware when other youth die by suicide. The social media effect and the spread of information ... there's nothing we can do to stop that," he said.

When a young person who is feeling sad or hopeless learns that one of their peers has taken their own life, suicide may suddenly seem like a viable option, McMahon said. 

"So what we have to be able to do is to help youth to talk about what they're hearing, make sure they have an outlet for their anger, for their frustration, for their exhaustion, for their sadness, and connect them with individuals in the community that can help to provide hope — parents, educators, professionals, adults that they can connect with, that they can trust."

'These kids have been through nightmares'

That's exactly what resident Gail Evraire is trying to do with the Facebook group YOUTH Suicide Prevention in Woodstock.

Evraire, who is studying community health and whose adult son struggled with depression throughout his high school years, said she wanted to give kids in the area an outlet.

"I felt like they needed a platform, a forum to tell their stories. And also to be able to connect with the community and tell the community what it is they want, what their needs are, because at this point, nobody's asking them," she said. 

Evraire launched the group last week, and it already has nearly 5,000 members — many of them young people with something to say. 

"They're telling details. These kids have been through nightmares. I've had parents contact me and tell me their tears are streaming, reading these stories from these kids," Evraire said.

"I have to commend the parents as well because we've all taken the opportunity to write some encouraging words and tell these kids that we really do care about them. It doesn't matter if we're your mom, your dad — we care."

Students plan walkout 

Woodstock officials are working to deal with the crisis rocking the small community. The city held a public meeting on the issue last month, bringing in parents, school board officials and public health experts.

But young people tell CBC News they feel left out of the process. 

"I feel like students have more so been forgotten and it's been the adults more talking about it," said Mackenzie, who, with the help of her peers, has organized a community-wide student walkout on Tuesday. "I feel like students don't really have a say."

At 9 a.m., Mackenzie is hoping students in each of the town's five high schools will get up from their desks and march to Museum Square in an effort to raise awareness about mental health issues, stress, bullying and suicide — and to demand that their voices be included in the conversation.

"I got bullied a lot in school and up until recently," Mackenzie said. "I feel like it's just time for people to stand up and be aware of what's going on."

But McMahon says it's important not to overburden kids who are already dealing with so much.

"It is an intentional process during a time of crisis — on the recommendation of national experts and provincial experts — that we make sure it's the adults taking action, the adults that are activated, so that we can support youth in crisis with truth and light and hope."