How do you stop a youth suicide crisis from happening? Experts say it begins with education

Click to play video: 'Woodstock, Ont. students demand action on suicide crisis'
Woodstock, Ont. students demand action on suicide crisis
WATCH ABOVE: Hundreds of students in the town of Woodstock, Ont. walked out of their classrooms Tuesday, demanding the school and mental health leaders take action to stem a suicide crisis in their community. Eric Sorensen reports. – Jun 7, 2016

As the community of Woodstock, Ont., struggles to come to terms with why five young people killed themselves in recent months, mental health experts say education and more mental health research is needed to prevent these crises from happening.

Hundreds of students walked out of class Tuesday in the small southwestern Ontario town, demanding action in the wake of the suicides.

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

Jada Downing was marching for her 17-year-old stepsister who took her life in May.

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

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

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Marnin Heisel, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Western Ontario, said young people are often the “canaries in the mine” that express problems faced by society at a broader level.

“When people are feeling at wits’ end, struggling with stressors, economic, financial or work-related, etc. [Young people] tend to pick up on that and it can actually contribute to hopelessness regarding a future,” said Heisel.

Ian Manion, director of Youth Mental Health Research at the Royal Institute for Mental Health Centre in Ottawa, said these tragedies leave communities reeling in a search for answers.

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“There is never one specific cause that can explain everything or why it is occurring in that community at that time,” he said. “It’s always difficult, and when it happens a community is obviously overwhelmed. And sometimes they struggle to figure out what they should do in the moment.”

READ MORE: 13 kids taken to hospital in Attawapiskat over fears of ‘suicide pact’

Woodstock police say 36 people have expressed suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide in Woodstock and the surrounding Oxford County since the start of the year.

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Mike McMahon, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association branch in Oxford, said young people, like older populations, have trouble with depression or mental health issues and are more susceptible to suicide.

“What we’ve certainly been learning through the last two and a half months is that the youth brain, in its underdeveloped state, does not engage in long-term planning,” he said. “The seeking for immediate relief is what creates a real vulnerability among our young people.”

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

Heisel says there needs to be a more proactive approach combining education, more research around suicide prevention, and increasing access to psychological services.

“One thing students and their families in Woodstock  have been calling for is mental health curriculum, in the school curriculum, whether at grade schools or secondary schools,” he said. “Mental health education shouldn’t be exclusively for the students, there needs to be education for the teachers, for health-care providers and for the families of the students.”

The city of roughly 35,000 isn’t the only community dealing with a suicide crisis among its young people.

In April, the northern Ontario Attawapiskat First Nation declared a state of emergency after 11 people tried to take their own lives in one night.

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Experts say that regardless of where you are in Canada, youth suicide is an urgent national problem.

“Sadly it’s not anything new,” Manion. “ I think it’s been happening for a long time, we see clusters of suicides that happen at various times in both urban and rural communities.”

WATCH: Students in Woodstock march out of class to protest spike in teen suicides. 
Click to play video: 'Students in Woodstock march out of class to protest spike in teen suicides'
Students in Woodstock march out of class to protest spike in teen suicides

Following the walkout today, McMahon said the message from the students in Woodstock was received loud and clear: any solutions to this crisis will require the voices of young people.

“We hear today that if youth are not part of the discussion we risk missing the mark with long-term plans,” said McMahon. “We are still in crisis response phase and we are trying to ensure we don’t experience any more tragedies in our communities.”

“When we continue to relegate information and training about mental health and addiction to family conversations and assemblies, I really believe we miss an opportunity to talk to students when they are seated in classrooms.”

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*With a file from Mark Carcasole

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