Students walk out of classes after 5 youth suicides in Woodstock, Ont.

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Hundreds of students in Woodstock, Ont., put down their books and marched out of class Tuesday to call for action in the wake of a string of youth suicides, with some saying more school counsellors would help.

Jada Downing was among them, marching for her 17-year-old stepsister who killed herself last month — the fifth and most recent teen to take their own life in the small community since late February. Police say 36 people have expressed suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide in Woodstock and the surrounding county in that time.

“We knew she was obviously struggling,” she said.

“As her best friend she talked to me and reached out to me but we didn’t know it was this big of an issue.”

Students are protesting in support of their peers struggling with suicidal thoughts in the wake of the deaths, described by one mental health expert as a “suicide contagion” with one suicide triggering another, and voicing frustration with the belief that the school board isn’t taking their views into consideration.

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

“A lot of people just don’t know how to reach out for help,” said Jada.

“I think that today will be an eyeopener for a lot of people, and they will be able to get the help that my sister needed.”

One improvement voiced by protesters, who marched through the local town square, was improving student access to counsellors.

“There’s a lot of missing puzzle pieces. We have a counsellor in our school. He’s amazing, but he’s not there all the time,” the teen said.

Thirteen-year-old Sydney LaHay said her high school has counsellors present two days a week, “but the other three they’re not there.”

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“That’s a lot. They’re missing out,” she said. Prior to first suicide the school board should have had more counsellors, “Even before the first suicide they should have had counsellors in schools

“They should have been acting on this. But as five people lost their lives now they’re trying to do something,” Sydney added.

School board officials said additional mental health resources have been deployed in Woodstock.

“There is support five days a week in the schools,” said Karen Edgar with the Thames Valley District School Board.

Even if a counsellor is not available every day, over 1,000 staff — from teachers to administrators — with suicide-prevention training are available at the area’s three school boards, said Kathy Furlong with with the London District Catholic School Board.

“There are lots of supports in place. Is it full time every day all year? No, it’s not,” she said. “[But] there are absolutely a lot of places to turn.”

With a file from The Canadian Press

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