Our Kids, Suicide, Why?
‘A semicolons is used when an author could have ended a sentence but chose not to.
You are the author and the sentence is your life.’
Students Protest for Suicide Support.
On Tuesday June 7th 2016, hundreds of high school students in Woodstock Ontario staged a school walkout and gathering in the local town square to bring attention to a rash of five youth suicides in their community over recent months.
While the five young victims under nineteen died, at least thirty-six others are known to have either attempted or expressed suicidal thoughts in this rural town of thirty-eight thousand people.
Many of those attending the walk out wore purple semicolin tee shirt shirts, the symbol of suicide awareness.
‘Project ;’ was started in 2013 by American Amy Bleuel because she wanted to honour her father who took his own life.
This global non profit organization is dedicated, as Amy states’ “to present hope and love for those that are struggling with mental illness, suicide, addiction, and self-injury. Project semicolon exist to encourage love and inspire.”
Their goal is to achieve a lower world wide suicide rate by envisioning hope and love, and declaring that hope is alive in a society that openly addresses mental illness, suicide and addiction.
Faith plays a large part in their credo, as does restraint from using alcohol and drugs as an escape, and self destruction is no longer an option.
Above all they envision a “Revolution of LOVE” and declare that our stories are not over yet.
Those young people back in Woodstock Ontario that wore the semicolon shirts that fateful morning were obviously aware of what Project Semicolon striving to accomplish, and they themselves were forging their own path to get help for their community.
While events that triggered this gathering took place in rural Canada, it could have happened anywhere in the world where there are emotionally distraught youth, especially if they had access to the internet and social media.
More than four hundred students, parents and citizens took part in the rally that included speeches delivered by pupils from five different high schools.
” Students need people in schools specifically trained in youth mental health who we can reach out to.” said Melissa Bailey, whose seventeen year old sister Amanda took here own life in February.
Amanda’s father Ron proclaimed “Moving from hopeless to survival to hopeful right now is the path that the youth of this community need to take. Every suicide attempt shatters this community.”
Jada Downing lost her seventeen year old sister to suicide last month. She participated in the walkout in hopes of dissuading others from making the same choice.
“It kinda felt like I was being stabbed in the heart a thousand times,” Jada said about the moment she heard of her sister Kristi Wilkinson’s death on May 28th.
“I do believe that if she had reached out, someone would have been able to help her.”
The Authorities React
Local authorities had been trying to deal with the situation as best they could, but the needed resources just weren’t available.
The local director of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Mike McMahon declared ” We’ve never experienced this before, this is a crisis in our community.”
Mackenzie Gall, a sixteen year old student said ” News of suicides and suicide attempts spread quickly among students and it has a huge emotional impact on everyone. Woodstock is a really small town. Everybody knows everybody and everybody knows what’s going on. All of the people are really upset and are not handling it well.”
As to why it is happening, nobody has a clear answer. The students suggested that stress, anxiety, and depression are widespread among their peers and bullying is also an issue.
Mike McMahon gave his opinion on the matter. “We don’t know why the numbers are so high, but we do know one thing that is different than when I was child: youth are aware when other youth die by suicide. The social media effect and the spread of information… there is nothing we can do to stop that.”
He went on to say ” Suicide is too complex to speculate on people’s individual motivations. When a young person who is feeling sad and hopeless learns that one of their peers has taken their own life, suicide may seem like a viable option.”
“So what we have to be able to do is to help youth talk about what they are 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, adults they can connect with, that they can trust.
McMahon’s national organization has sought advice and convened meetings with experts around the country to help deal with this tragic circumstance while local officials held a public meeting bringing in parents, school board officials and public health experts.
But through all of this, the students themselves felt left out of the process.
As Mackenzie Gall expressed, “I feel like students have been forgotten and it’s been the adults that are doing more talking about it. I feel like students don’t really have a say. I got bullied a lot in school up until recently. I feel like it’s just time for people to stand up and be aware of what’s going on.”
Mackenzie’s actions spoke as loud as her words because she organized and coordinated the walkout that took place at 9:am sharp in June 7th. Her goal was to demand that the student’s voices be heard in regard to their own mental health issues, bullying and suicide.
Her plan worked in spades!
She explained that the walkout and empty classrooms sent an important message about teen suicide. “One minute we’re there and the next minute we’re not and ‘THAT’S’ basically how teen suicides are. You never know when it’s going to be the last time that you’ll see someone.”
Woodstock mayor Trevor Birtch told the rally that while suicide is a very tough subject, he urged the students to keep sharing their stories and advocating for services.
“I need your help, Council needs your help, the city needs your help, the school boards needs your help. Let us know where we can share information about supports and counselling. We are in this together.”
Officials from Woodstock public, French and Catholic school boards have consulted with experts in the field of teen mental health, suicide and trauma, and have been monitoring social media sites.
The Mental Health Support System is Inadequate.
It was an extremely brave and fortuitous act for the students to band together and demand to be heard, but who is out there to help them?
In the province of Ontario, for example, the latest studies show that there are currently 750,000, children and youth up to the age of 24 who have at least one mental health issue, the most common of which are anxiety disorder, attention deficit/hyperactivity, conduct disorder, depression and substance abuse.
Only one in four of these children will receive the mental health help they need.
The problem is that generally in Canada, government provided health care only covers the cost of psychological support services provided by a psychiatrist, for whom there is usually a one year waiting period to get an appointment.
Some children have to wait up to four years to get help. During this waiting period their mental health often deteriorates, in many cases quite dramatically.
However, if a family has the financial means, then they can pay for mental health services provided by a psychologist or a social worker in the private sector.
Thus, in Canada, we have a two tiered health system in child and youth mental health.
In the United states, with ten times the population of Canada, mental health care can hardly be less complicated.
No matter what help children get, suicide is still the leading cause of non accidental death among youth ages 15-24. It is also the leading cause of death for children ages 10 to 19.
These statistics scream for a loud call to action from government and the private organizations to help our children get the care they so desperately need.
Some have stepped up. A charitable organization, Partners for Mental Health, has instigated a program, ‘Right By You,’ that is working to give free mental healthcare to every child that needs it in our country.
With Ontario spending 39 billion dollars annually on mental illnesses and addiction, the feeling is that early intervention is the key to keeping our children alive and well.
The overwhelming emotional cost for people living with mental illness and their families and friends is beyond calculation.
Young People Are Suffering At Epidemic Levels
The honest truth of the matter is that our children have so much more to deal with in their lives than any generation that has preceded them.
Some people say they are soft, that they have a right of entitlement complex. Some call it the ‘Cupcake Generation.’
Growing up, dealing with puberty and all of it’s emotional complexities has never been easy, but today’s kids are dealing with pressures, both external and internal, that my boomer generation never had to deal with.
According to a study in 2013 by the Canadian Mental Health Association, suicide is contagious among young people. Adolescence who either went to school with or otherwise personally knew an individual that died by suicide were much more likely to seriously contemplate attempting suicide.
A ‘Kids Help Phone’ survey in 2016 found that one in five Canadian teens has seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous year. Almost half of these had formulated a plan.
Girls appeared twice as likely to have seriously considered suicide than boys. Trigger points were, violence and abuse at home, (27%) concerns about body image, (75%) and addiction to drugs and alcohol.(23%)
The worst part is that research now shows that there is a ‘suicide contagion,’ in which adolescents that either went to school with or that otherwise personally knew an individual who died by suicide were much more likely to seriously contemplate or attempt suicide.
“There is strong proof of the idea that an individual suicide can lead to ‘copycat’ suicides.” states Ian Colman, a research chair in mental health at the University of Toronto.
It has also been determined that it didn’t matter how well a student knew a schoolmate who died by suicide, simply attending the same school is linked to an increased likelihood that some pupils will contemplate or attempt to take their own lives.
“It’s just the idea of suddenly being confronted with a suicide in your peer group. It can have a real dramatic impact. ” states Mr. Colman.
What happened in Woodstock Ontario transformed all the studies and statistics into a tragic reality.
Internal and External Forces Effecting A Teen’s Emotional Health.
First of all we must address genetics.
I have personal experience with the genetics of mental illness. My wife Carol took her own life at the age of forty. She had suffered from anxiety/depression for three years. Her older brother took his own life two years later, and a paternal uncle had taken his life several years before my wife. All three of her remaining siblings have suffered from depression.
Our daughters were ages 10 and 12 when my wife passed, and while they are well adjusted adult women now, one with two children of her own, the scars of their mum’s death will never leave them.
As a result I continue to have grave concerns for their emotional well being, and this concern extends as well to my grandchildren.
Being the primary caregiver for my wife as she dealt with her anxiety/depression has given me a great deal of empathy for people suffering from and caring for emotionally distressed loved ones. This empathy extends to professional caregivers, doctors, nurses and anyone that cares.
Over the years I accumulated any and all articles I come across dealing with mental health and suicide.
One of the most heartbreaking was written by Dr. Paul Garfinkel, a Toronto psychiatrist who had an adult patient that he thought was improving very well in many aspects of her life, only to hear the shocking news that she was gone.
In his own words, he laments ” I had worked hard to free her, first from the vice grip of anorexia, and then from the pit of depression, and we had made real progress together, or so I thought. This patient’s death shocked and deeply saddened me. It was one of the most emotionally devastating moments of my professional career and I was just not prepared for it.”
The sudden finality of suicide cuts across all cultural, educational and religious aspects of our lives. No one is immune!
Dr. Rudolph Uher, an award winning psychiatrist and mental health researcher from Dalhousie University in Halifax has found that mental illness has a strong genetic component that burns through families. Uher’s team is closely following 300 children of different ages into adulthood, and his patients regularly report that parents, grandparents, other relatives were sick before them.
Dr. Uher’s studies have shown that for his adult patients suffering from mental illness, there is a one in three chance that a child of theirs will also suffer some form of emotional problems.
Therefore the internal family environment that a child grows up with can have a drastic effect on their emotional state.
Divorce ratees have never been higher. Many children never get over their parent’s breakup and they usually either act out or suffer in silence. The more anger, jealousy and recriminations against a former spouse, the worse off their children will be.
They can grow up with a jaded outlooked on the institution of marriage, and in many cases blame themselves for the divorce. The result of these emotional upsets are often tragic.
Drug and alcohol abuse, emotional and physical abuse, economic hardship, and physical illness or disability are all traumatic factors effecting a family’s ability to find a stable and loving domestic life.
When families fall apart, children suffer every bit as much as adults in these environments.
In many cases emotional wellness comes down to self image. Are they pretty enough, smart enough, cool enough, sexy enough, tough enough, are my clothes hip enough?
Wanting to fit in and have a peer group, especially at school, is very important and it is those hours alone at home worrying about fitting in that can add to stress.
Sexual orientation is a major source of emotional distress for young adults. Coping with the body’s changes during puberty is one thing, but confusion about gender or sexual preferences add a whole other aspect of confusion to the mix.
I have a gay step son.
He is now an adult, a wonderful, talented, gentle man, but his teen years were hell. He is not afraid to be loud and proud about being gay, but it took a lot of years full of understanding and love from family and friends to get there.
No matter how tolerant society espouses to be, there are still thousands upon thousands of homophobes and transphobes everywhere, especially on social media.
Love and support within the family unit can go a long way to helping young adults and children cope with their internal dilemmas.
External, or outside the home environment factors leading to emotional distress are many and varied.
Once you step outside your front door, the world is waiting to either embrace or judge you. Sometimes it does both.
For young people, school and their social peer group are all important. ‘Fitting in,’ is everything. The outside world can be an escape from a bad situation at home, and with supportive caring friends it can also be a coping mechanism, a place to share thoughts and dreams.
Everyone wants to act like they have ‘it’ together, but keeping ‘it’ together is not always easy.
Having raised two daughters through their teenage years I know just how catty, jealous and fickle young girls can be, but they can also be an island of emotional trust and friendship.
The thing is, so much has changed in the twenty years since my girls were teens.
Anxiety among teens has never been higher.
Officially, anxiety is defined by excessive, debilitating worry that significantly interferes with a person’s ability to function at home, work or school, often causing physical side effects such as panic attacks.
According to mental health researcher Erin Anderssen who wrote in the Globe and Mail newspaper, “A society that creates anxious, poorly coping parents doesn’t leave it’s youth unscathed. Even younger children talk about worries and stress. Today’s teenagers report being significantly more stressed than their mothers and fathers were at the same age, and they are certainly the most medicated generation of under 18 year-olds in history.”
Dr. Katrina Manassis, director of anxiety disorders at Toronto’ Hospital for Sick Children confirms that “teenagers are facing a complex set of pressures…to succeed in a bad economy, to manage divorced parents, to navigate social media, and to deal with a celebrity culture bombarding them with a fame and fortune ethos, ( as well as death, disease and doomsday predictions.)
While low income students are more at risk, kids from wealthier families report rising anxiety rates as well, with girls in almost all surveys feeling panic of high expectations most of all.
” Everybody is worried about wearing the nicest clothes, and being popular and measuring up to the people they see on TV,” say Sabrina Shigeoka, 16.
A competitive hockey and baseball player who aspired to a U.S. college sports scholarship, Sabrina says that feeling stressed is a constant topic of conversation among her friends.
There are nights when she can’t sleep and days when her heart is racing, as if she is always in competition.
” It kind of scares you when your friends do more extra club and sports, and you think, ‘Is a university going to choose them over me?”
Anderson writes, ” Part of the problem is that students don’t learn the proper coping skills for what experts call ‘garden-variety’ anxiety, the stress that results after a fight with a best friend, or failing a test.
Dr. Stanley Kutcher, a psychiatrist at Dalhousie University specializing in adolescent anxiety suggests that the lesson not being taught is that ” anxiety is a gift inherited by our ancestors to protect us from threat and to kick-start ambition. To fight it, we have to face it. Anxiety is a driver for skill development, it’s a driver for adaptability. If you are anxious about your test, then for crying out loud, go and study!”
I don’t know how many people would agree with his comments, but there you have it.
The internet has changed so much of our lives, for better or for worse.
Everything happens so much quicker now, with instant information at our fingertips 24/7.
Knowledge is certainly a powerful tool and sites like Google provide a wealth of it. But knowledge can also be invasive if used incorrectly.
Hacking and identity theft were virtually non existent before the world wide web came along.
We also got something called Cyber Bullying, one of the great scourges of the internet.
How many young lives have been lost due to it’s caustic effects?
Too many adults see bulling as ‘ just part of being s kid, ‘ but it is a serious problem that leads to many negative effects for victims, including suicide.
A Yale University study found that bullying victims are up to ten times more likely to consider suicide than non victims.
According to statistics reported by ABC News, nearly thirty percent of students are either bullies or victims of bullying and 160,000 kids stay home from school every day because of bullying.
Bullying related suicide can be connected to any type of bullying, including physical bullying, emotional bullying, cyber bullying, sexting, or circular suggestive or nude photos or messages about a person.
With regard to Cyberbullying, two professors, Sameer Hinduja of Florida Atlantic University and Justin Patchin of the University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire, have formed the Cyberbullying research Centre which is devoted to researching and providing up to date information about the nature, extent, causes, and consequences of cyberbullying among adolescents.
They lecture across the United States offering comprehensive workshops to parents, teachers, counsellors, mental health professionals, law enforcement agencies, youth and others concerned with addressing and preventing online aggression.
Their findings have proven that without question, the nature of adolescent peer aggression has evolved due to the proliferation of information and communication technology.
There have been several high profile suicides because of being harassed and mistreated over the internet, a phenomenon they have termed ‘cyberbullicide,’ suicide indirectly or directly influenced by experiences of online aggression.
What is forgotten about bullying is that the bullies themselves often suffer from severe emotional distress and as a result these young people can also be prone to taking their own lives.
And then there is the elephant in the room…SEX.
John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, plays the role of a boy’s private school master in a skit from the movie, ‘The Meaning of Life.’
Cleese walks into his classroom where his young charges are suitably attired in school blazer and tie, and after a short preamble about school routine sighs heavily and queries,
“Now sex…sex, sex, sex…where were we? Had I got as far as the penis entering the vagina?”
The reaction to this question finds the students shockingly dim with uncomfortable ‘ummmms’ and ‘ahhhhhhhs’ and can we open the windows please Sirs?” These boys would rather be anywhere other than sex ed. class.
For centuries s.e.x. was to be whispered about behind closed doors, and certainly not written about or showcased on something called the internet.
But in the real world for teenagers and even tweenagers, sex, sex, sex, is anything but disinteresting and closeted.
Personally, as someone who came of age during ‘the summer of love,’ which is a euphemism for the 1960’s sexual awaking and revolution, as it was referred to, I thought that I had seen it all.
The birth control pill had just become available to almost any female that wanted it, and AIDS did not exist in the western world yet.
Mix in the recreational drug culture and the musical epiphany of a whole generation, and you get ‘WOODSTOCK, FREE LOVE, BRITISH INVASION, VIETNAM, OVERDOSE, JIM JANIS AND JIMMIE, KENT STATE, FLOWER POWER, WATERGATE, ALL ROLLED INTO ONE’ kind of generation.
But it didn’t last.
Peace and love were supplanted in the United Stated by the draft, racial tension, assassinations and rampant sexually transmitted diseases.
For many disillusioned young people who saw their hope of a peaceful loving world fade away in a cloud of napalm, the only way out was to drop out. That could often lead to the final solution.
Now in 2016 the sexual ‘norm’ for teenagers seems to be more ‘out there.’
With casual hookups, friends with benefits, Tinder, and Grinder, the cyber sexual revolution is here to stay.
So are STD’s again.
But what about the residual emotional fallout of casual sex between young adults.
Can kids today channel their feelings like infatuation and lust into a place in their minds where they won’t be hurt by their actions, or the actions of their partners?
For girls, how far an emotional journey is it between being a prude and a slut?
And for boys between a geeky-nerd and a stud?
Often it is the perception of their peers that sets a young personal’s sexual persona, and this persona can be cultivated, exaggerated and circulated both verbally and electronically, for better or for worse.
Unwanted pregnancies still happen, and while abortions are, in many places, readily available, what is the psychological fallout of going through this traumatic experience?
Are todays teenagers dragging an emotional wasteland with them into adulthood?
Young love shouldn’t end like Romeo and Julliette, but it can and does happen.
What Is Being Done to Help Our Kids?
Love them, talk to them, respect them, teach them, support them, and above all, listen to what they are saying.
Try to help them find their balance, physically, mentally, emotionally spiritually.
If they can find a ray of hope every morning when they wake up, then odds are that it will be an O.K. day.
Project Semi Colon wants to help people with emotional distress find love and hope.
That works for me. Hope is the strongest word in the English language as far as I am concerned.
But if you are unwell, you need help to find hope, then you MUST talk to someone to kickstart your journey of hope.
Back in Woodstock Ontario, resident Gail Evraire started a Facebook group ‘Youth Suicide Prevention in Woodstock’ right after the school walkout.
Evraire, who is studying community health and whose adult son struggled with depression through his high school years said she wanted to give the kids in the area an outlet.
“I felt like they needed 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, no one is asking them.”
Within days of it’s launch the site had 5,000 members.
“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.”
“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.”
IF THEIR COMMUNITY CAN DO IT, SO CAN YOURS!
In 2010 a first year university student, Jack Windeler, took his own life. His family and the university community were devastated. Jack’s parents wanted to ensure his death was turned into something positive so that young people could learn from Jack’s experiences.
They formed what has now become ‘jack.org,’ a national mental illness help and awareness network across Canada that has grown to over 100 chapters.
The most amazing aspect of jack.org is that it is all about kids mentoring kids about their emotional health, specifically dealing with mental illness.
They organize a national summit once a year that brings together hundreds of engaged young people to co-mingle and bond around the theme of emotional wellness and how to help their peers that are in trouble.
One again we have a parent spearheading he movement to help our children find a platform to talk about their feelings.
Corporately, Canada’s largest media company, Bell Media, has instituted a program called ‘Let’s Talk,’ which has raised almost $80 million over the past six years for research and education of mental illness issues.
Let’s Talk focuses on the stigma of mental illness and engages people to donate to their cause on one particular day in January of each year by using several platforms of social media. In 2016 they set a record with over 129 million messages of support.
Also, the Moods Disorder Society of Canada has started the ‘Elephant in the Room Anti Stigma’ campaign by selling small blue elephants to show that people care about the stigma of mental illness.
The medical profession and pharmaceutical companies are also hard at work to provide better specialized help by means of personal genetic medications.
Recent studies at Oxford University by a team lead by Dr. Andrea Cipriani found that only Prozac worked effectively on children and teenagers and even that drug had it’s shortcomings in many instances.
According to Dr. Peggy Richter, head of the Anxiety Disorders Centre at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital, the process of finding a drug that works for most patients takes many months, trying several antidepressants and it’s “hit or miss.”
But recent advances in genetic research may finally take some of the guess work out of prescribing antidepressants and a host of other medications. One study deals with certain genes and how they effect the metabolism of drugs in individual patients. These findings have fuelled the development of a new field of medicine known as pharmacogenetics, in which genes help to determine the right drug and the right dose for a patient.
“It could be a called a revolution in how physicians write a prescription.” sat James Kennedy, head of the Pharmacogenetics Centre at CAMH.
So as loving, caring adults here is what we want.
While the majority of stories and studies about mental illness written here have taken place in Canada, it would be logical to assume that any developed nation would be creating their own research looking for improvements to the current mental health regimen available to their citizens, especially for their youth.
We want every community that is vested in the fight against mental illness to share their medical advances. To help our young people stay alive and well. We want it, WE INSIST UPON IT!