Youth Suicides in Woodstock, Ontario
Quick Fact: Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young Canadians between the ages of 10 and 24. (CMHA)
Today, at around 9:00am, hundreds of students walked out of classes in Woodstock, Ontario in response to the suicides of five youth under age 19 in the city since late February. Officials report that there have been at least 36 additional suicide attempts in Oxford County, an area of southwestern Ontario that includes Woodstock and seven neighbouring communities.
“One minute we’re there and the next we’re not and that’s basically how the suicides are. You never know when it’s going to be the last time you see someone.”
– Mackenzie Gail, 16-year-old Grade 11 student from Huron Park Secondary School
Students in Woodstock hope that their walkout will raise awareness over the suicides and what they feel has been a failure by school boards to take action. They are calling for more hospital beds and more readily available crisis counsellors.
A public meeting on this issue was held last month with parents, public health experts, and school board officials in attendance. School boards across Woodstock have announced that they have been consulting experts in fields of mental health, suicide, and trauma, and have been monitoring social media sites.
“It could be any community. Anybody could be at risk at any moment in time.”
– Ian Manion, Director of Youth Mental Health Research at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre
Yes, suicide can and does happen anywhere, however, a “suicide crisis” has occurred in two rural Canadian communities – Attawapiskat and Woodstock – within months of each other. While it can be difficult to determine why someone takes their own life, it is becoming increasingly clear that change needs to happen at different levels of our communities and systems, not only in response to what has happened, but also to prevent it from happening again.
The Rural Context
In rural communities across the country, there is limited funding for youth programs and access to youth mental health services. Youth may have to travel long distances in order to receive necessary treatments, feel more isolated due to factors like living far away from school, and the stigma of being treated for mental health issues is real. As recent months have proven, the system simply isn’t working. Youth suicide rates have not gone down over the years, and suicide remains one of the leading causes of death amongst young people in Canada.
“I think we’ve made tremendous advances in terms of creating safe spaces for young people to talk, but there’s still a lot of discomfort and distress in talking about some of these issues.”
– Joanna Henderson, Director of Child, Youth and Family Mental Health at CAMH Toronto
Immediate support is required to address what is happening in places like Woodstock and Attawapiskat, however, experts say long-term support and changes in the community are necessary for prevention in the future. Youth also need to be included in planning and should be co-creators in programs.
Joanna Henderson of CAMH suggests that people should be looking to technology as a resource. She points out that typically health organizations require patients to phone to book an appointment, however teens tend to be more comfortable using text messaging or social media. Using technology that teens are familiar with to help them book appointments is a step in the right direction. As Henderson says, “Our policies haven’t caught up with changes in technology to allow us to use that in a way that’s helpful [for youth].”
Ontario Association for Suicide Prevention
ConnexOntario Mental Health Helpline
Select News Coverage:
What needs to happen next to deal with Woodstock, Ont., suicide crisis?
THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Hundreds of students walk out of classes after five youth suicides in Woodstock, Ont.
Woodstock youth suicides have community seeking answers
Woodstock students stage walkout over ‘suicide contagion’
“[Students] need people in the school specifically trained in youth mental health that people can reach out to. They need someone that they can take that first step with. If they don’t take that first step, nothing is going to get better.”
– Melissa Bailey, whose 17-year-old sister, Amanda (Mandy), took her own life in February