‘Suicide contagion’ feared in Woodstock, Ont., after string of youth suicides

Click to play video: 'String of suicides in Ontario prompts questions about mental health' String of suicides in Ontario prompts questions about mental health
WATCH ABOVE: A rash of suicides in a southern Ontario city has many Canadians wondering if we're doing enough to help address the mental health of kids and teens. On Tuesday, hundreds of students walked out of their classrooms in Woodstock to demand action. Laurel Gregory has more – Jun 8, 2016

WOODSTOCK, Ont. – Police in a southwestern Ontario city say that five people aged 19 and younger have killed themselves since the beginning of 2016 in what an official of the Canadian Mental Health Association is calling a “suicide contagion.”

The chief of police in Woodstock, Ont., said that in the same time frame 36 people have expressed suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide in Oxford County, which includes Woodstock and seven neighbouring communities. Woodstock and some of the surrounding area had a population of about 38,000 – nearly 9,000 of them 19 and younger – according to 2011 census data.

Officials in the area said they’re working together to ensure they have enough resources to deal with the onslaught of calls to crisis lines, but high school students said they aren’t seeing the effects.

In response to the situation, high school students in the city are speaking out on social media.

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One Facebook group, called “Youth Suicide Prevention in Woodstock,” has more than 5,000 members. It was created by Gail Evraire, 39, who lives in Woodstock, to give teens an outlet to discuss their experiences.

“There was nothing being said about our youth, and what our youth were expressing about what their needs might be,” she said.

READ MORE: Federal government under fire as Attawapiskat suicide crisis continues

“These are their peers that are taking their lives, and I can’t imagine what the kids must be feeling.”

Mike McMahon, the executive director of CMHA Oxford, said his organization has been collaborating with police, the Thames Valley District School Board and other officials to combat what he called a “suicide contagion,” the theory that one suicide can trigger other suicides in a community.

But Evraire said group members don’t feel there are enough resources for them.

“Youth and parents would like to see mental health added to their school curriculum,” she said. “It’s frustrating to know that we have hairdressing class, makeup artistry and fashion … yet we have nothing that tackles mental health in the curriculum.”

READ MORE: Attawapiskat: Crisis has hallmarks of possible ‘suicide contagion’

Sixteen-year-old Mackenzie Gall said she’s helping to organize a walkout to show support for peers experiencing suicidal thoughts and to express frustration that the school board doesn’t seem to be taking students’ views into consideration.

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She said that at her school, Huron Park Secondary School, she hasn’t seen much in terms of added support.

“They’ve put up posters showing who our guidance counsellors are and who’s able to be there for us,” she said. “And that’s really the extent of it.”

At least 100 students are planning on walking out of school at 9 a.m. Tuesday, 45 minutes after classes begin, she said. They plan on walking to a square down the street from city hall, where some students will speak about their struggles.

McMahon said CMHA Oxford, which operates a 24-hour crisis line in the area, has been fielding more calls from people with suicidal thoughts since the first teen died by suicide in late February. And for the time being, he said, his organization and other officials in the city are primarily focusing on figuring out how to help teens who are in immediate crisis, so that they don’t think of suicide as a “viable solution” to their problems.

A representative from the school board didn’t immediately provide comment.

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