Tortured Mind

Ontario schools are missing ‘perfect opportunity’ to address mental health amid rash of youth suicides

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Chelsea

Chelsea Lall remembers the first time she saw pill bottles and razor blades taped to her high school locker.

Lall had been struggling with anxiety and depression and regularly cut up her arms to cope with the pain she felt inside amid nonstop bullying.

“We had a dollar store across from my high school, so people would go…, get sharpeners, and take out the razor and tape it to my locker,” the Ajax, Ont., teen said, adding her peers also tormented her with travel-size bottles of Tylenol.

Lall first began experiencing suicidal thoughts at the age of 11. Later as she entered high school, her mental health deteriorated.

“I started taking it out on myself,” she told Global News. “I started self-harming to kind of cope with everything that was going on, because I couldn’t control my anxiety so I figured that was one thing I could control.”

Around the same time she started receiving messages from classmates encouraging her to kill herself. The disturbing messages began to flow through the anonymous social networking site ask.fm. They taunted the already fragile teen.

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“[I’d] get anonymous messages about how I should kill myself, and people saw my scars, and [told me] I should cut deeper. It was pretty brutal.”

Lall first attempted to take her life three days before her 15th birthday. There were several more attempts.

Lall, now 18, has a heart-wrenching story, but it’s far from unique and mirrors the experiences of thousands of other students in Ontario high schools who struggle with mental health issues like self-harm, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

A Global News investigation has found a spike in suicides in Ontario among 10 to 19 year olds, rising from 54 suicides in 2013 to 81 in 2014, according to the latest data obtained from the provincial coroner’s office.

Nearly 2,500 teenagers age 10 to 17 were hospitalized due to intentional self-harm from 2013 to 2014, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. From 2010 to 2011 there were just over 1,500.

The numbers paint a stark picture of the mental health crisis facing young people in Ontario and raises questions about whether the Ontario government is doing enough to reach teenagers where they could be helped most – in the classroom.

WATCH: Personal stories of mental illness and youth suicide

Woodstock’s heartbreak

Jake Bentko’s final year of high school in Woodstock, Ont., was supposed to be about looking to the future with friends and classmates. The 18 year old’s excitement was growing with aspirations of college, university or beginning an apprenticeship to enter the workforce.

All of that was dashed earlier this year when two of Bentko’s friends, Nathan and Justin, took their own lives.

“It changed the rest of the year,” he said. “Every day I used to see [Justin], I used to talk to him. And then going into the school and not seeing him. The hallways being quiet, [it] was almost disturbed.”

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Jake

In the southwestern Ontario city of 38,000, the tragedy of five students who died by suicide between January and May loomed over Woodstock students as they headed back to class in September.

In addition to the suicides, there were at least 36 suicide attempts in Oxford County, which includes Woodstock and seven neighbouring communities, according to police.

“All the tragedies together were kind of like a huge downfall,” Bentko said. “It was really hard to concentrate on school work. Everything you see, you thought of them. I had a really hard time getting over the grieving stages.”

How big is the problem?

Getting a clear picture of how many teens are taking their own lives in Ontario and the rest of Canada isn’t easy. Statistics Canada’s most recent cause of death data is from 2012. Data for 2013 won’t be released until February 2017, according to the agency.

WATCH: The mental health crisis in Canada explained (Video by Emanuela Campanella)

Karen Lavoie, a research assistant for the Centre for Suicide Prevention located in Calgary, has been independently tracking suicides in Canada and found the numbers aren’t reported consistently between the provinces and can be “problematic.”

“It is important to know which province in a given year is experiencing an increase or a decrease,” Lavoie said. “If we do see a decrease we want to know why it is happening.”

Marnin Heisel, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Western Ontario, is alarmed that Canada lacks real-time data on suicides.

“We can go online and look up U.S. data and they have 2014 data [on suicide statistics] already and we don’t have even 2013 yet,” he said.

“We know there is always going to be some time lag that typically takes a year,” he said. “But four years later, to still not have data, is problematic.”

Third highest suicide rate in the industrialized world

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death in 15 to 24 year olds in the country, second only to accidents, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). It has been that way for more than a decade, CMHA spokesperson, Helene Cote, confirmed to Global News. Canada’s youth suicide rate is also the third highest in the industrialized world.

Information that is available at the municipal level also provides a snapshot of suicide and self-harm among youth on the rise.

A report prepared by the Windsor-Essex Health Unit in August found a staggering 143 per cent increase in attempted suicides by young people between the ages of 10 and 19 from 2010 to 2015.

With 226 hospital visits per 100,000 people, the attempted suicide rate for youth last year was dramatically higher than for any other age group, including seniors over 65 (33 visits), adults 45 to 64 (80.5 visits) and adults 20 to 44 (165 visits).

Youth suicide crisis for Canada’s First Nations

While the youth suicide rate is alarming in cities and towns across Canada, it pales in comparison to what is happening in many indigenous communities.

According to the CMHA, the average rate of suicide in Canada among Aboriginal youth is about five to six times higher than non-Aboriginal youth.

Last April, Attawapiskat, a remote First Nation in Northern Ontario, saw more than 100 people attempt suicide over the course of seven months, leading to calls for increased access to counsellors and resources to address the “suicide crisis.”

In October, at least six young girls between the ages of 10 and 14 died by suicide in northern Saskatchewan. The most recent case involved a 13-year-old from Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation, near Loon Lake.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the suicides a “tragedy” and Health Minister Jane Philpott said more health care workers were being brought into the community.

“In Saskatchewan, there are multiple communities that have been affected by the recent suicides and we are making sure that mental health workers and other mental healthcare professionals are in those communities,” Philpott said.

Health Canada has sent mental health workers and other healthcare professionals to communities in Saskatchewan that have requested them.

Economic hardships, substance abuse and residential schools have been identified as key factors in high indigenous suicide rates.

Mental health education is as important as reading and writing

While the spike in youth suicides can’t be attributed to one cause, students in Woodstock who spoke with Global News said anxiety, depression and bullying were major issues at schools in the area.

If children aren’t given the proper coping mechanisms at a young age to help deal with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, the consequences can be tragic during their high school years, experts say.

WATCH: Teachers need to be better equipped to help students’ mental health

Dr. Joanna Henderson, a psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, says that youth suicide is a national problem and mental health education is just as important to students as reading and writing.

“In Canada we have a lot of work that we can still do to address suicide by young people,” she said. “We need to think in terms of prevention, we need to think in terms of early identification and really having the supports that young people find helpful.”

Youth suicide is a “multi-layered problem” that requires a “multi-layered response,” explained Henderson, who is also director of the McCain Centre for Child, Youth and Family Mental Health at CAMH.

“We really need to build the teacher’s capacity to help young people deal with the [daily stress] that come up in the context of school,” she said. “High school is a really intense environment that brings together performance demands, expectations around academic achievement, brings together social demands and social evaluation.”

Are Ontario schools doing enough?

Last year, the Ontario government introduced its revamped sexual education curriculum. It was the first update since 1998 — years before Facebook became a social media network and the devastating issue of cyberbullying began grabbing headlines.

Under the revised health and physical education curriculum, students in Grades 1-3 learn how to describe their emotions and the benefits of an active lifestyle. Students in Grades 4-8 are supposed to learn strategies for maintaining mental well-being and coping with stress. Students also learn about common mental health and substance abuse problems.

However, issues surrounding suicide — understanding warning signs and prevention strategies — aren’t addressed until Grade 11. And in Ontario, high school students need just one compulsory credit in health and physical education to graduate.

This means some high school students could limit their exposure to classes where mental health is taught to just one course in four years of education.

Henderson says the updated curriculum doesn’t go far enough and would like to see education around suicide become integrated in all aspects of schooling.

“We need a curriculum that includes specific content for young people around how to manage emotions, how to identify mental health concerns, how to reach out for help when they need help,” Henderson told Global News.

“That really has to be thought of as a core piece that goes across the entire school context. We don’t just start at puberty thinking about this issue. These are life skills that have to be thought of right from the beginning.”

“I think we are missing that opportunity to actually teach those skills directly to young people,” said Henderson.

How has the government responded?

Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter declined to be interviewed at length by Global News.

In a brief statement Hunter said the government is “committed to providing the right supports to children, youth and their families.”

“The loss of life through suicide is always a tragedy,” Hunter said. “School boards across Ontario recognize the importance of and are carrying out essential work in social emotional skill-building (like help-seeking, coping with stress, conflict resolution, problem-solving, and self-care) for students and are building knowledge and reducing stigma about mental illness with staff and students in safe ways.”

Hunter added the province includes funding for a “Mental Health Leader” in each school board who works to tackle mental health issues.

However, NDP education critic Lisa Gretzky said she doesn’t believe there is enough support in schools for struggling students.

“More and more [school] boards are actually having to lay off or fire the very support staff that would help support students that have mental health issues,” she said.

Educational workers need more tools and resources to reach students in crisis, added Gretzky.

“They do the best they can with the resources they are given, but they just aren’t given enough,” she said.

An innovative approach to teaching mental health

CAMH has partnered with the Toronto District School Board to run two academic day programs where roughly 16 students complete high school courses while getting daily help with their mental illnesses.

Researchers from the University of New Brunswick spent nearly a decade to create new mental health literacy resources that are “web-based and classroom-ready” and can provide more intervention training for teachers.

James Mandigo, a professor in the department of applied health sciences at Brock University, said the new curriculum is a good start at bringing mental health issues “out into the open.”

For teachers who want to provide their students with more education, Mandigo has some advice.

“It’s about embedding mental health as part of a whole culture in schools. It’s not just a subject you teach,” he said.

A path to healing

For Jada Downing, the suicide of her 17-year-old stepsister Kristi Wilkinson came out of nowhere.

“She was really happy, really fun,” said Downing. “She was definitely the life of the party … that was her personality.”

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Jada and Kristi

Downing, 17, has become an unofficial spokesperson for mental health in her school community at College Avenue Secondary School in Woodstock, Ont., and says that since the tragic death of her stepsister other students seek her out to discuss the stresses of high school and other personal issues.

“It has been inspiring to hear other people’s stories, said Downing. “It makes a difference in my life knowing that I can make a difference in someone else’s. People need to know that they can reach out for help. It’s OK to be not OK.”

Parents and advocates know all too well that prevention strategies need to be introduced early before tragedy occurs.

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Dana

“It was terrifying, it really was … to hear the stories of these young kids who were so innocent and lost,” said Dana Chapple, Downing’s mom. “To think that there was help out there and they didn’t know where to find it, how to ask for it.

“Maybe as parents we could have done more and they would still be here.”

Chapple and her daughter started their own grassroots support group to help young people in the area cope with the string of youth suicides.

Their meetings take place every Monday afternoon in Southside Park in Woodstock and begin shortly after the final bell of the day.

A woman is comforted during a rally in Woodstock, Ont. after hundreds of high school students in the town walked out of classes, Tuesday, June 7, 2016.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Geoff Robins

“It’s been a rough go, there have been many nights where I’ve sat with Jada and tried to explain why her best friend isn’t here and her best friend wasn’t here on the first day of school,” Chapple said, holding back tears. “I don’t want another parent to have to go through that with their child.”

Chapple said she would like to see more mental health education being taught at a younger age.

“So they aren’t afraid to say ‘I’m hurting inside and I don’t know how to get it out,” she said.

Where to get help

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide PreventionDepression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868  all offer ways for getting help if you, or someone you know, is suffering from mental health issues.

*With files from Christina Stevens

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