Justin Newell was a prankster who loved to play tricks on his family, crack jokes and tell silly stories. But the 13-year-old transgender boy took his own life June 3 in a heartbreaking suicide, one of three that have shaken his Cape Breton community.
“It was such a big shock,” his aunt Steph Melski said Tuesday from her Sydney, N.S., home that she shared with Justin. “It seemed like he was doing so well. He was transgender and was just really coming into his own.”
In response to the rash of teen suicides, the Nova Scotia government dispatched mental health expert Dr. Stan Kutcher to the region.
During a three day fact-finding mission this week, Kutcher is meeting with families, school staff and the community in town hall-style forums to determine what the issues are and how the province can better address the needs of Cape Breton youth.
He said he was “gobsmacked” by the grieving families’ willingness to help other children and prevent similar deaths.
“What really impressed me was how those discussions turned not just to their loss, which was considerable, but also their ideas and suggestions to make things better for other kids,” Kutcher said. “I was gobsmacked by the willingness and ability for people, while they were grieving, to think about the future of other children.”
Melski said she decided to speak out in an effort to help stop teen suicides and make sure resources are place for youth in need of mental health support.
“All teenagers go through tough times but transgender youth are under immense pressure,” she said. “We as a family supported Justin 100 per cent but looking back in retrospect we wonder what we missed.”
She said Justin was about to graduate from Grade 7 and was excited about being in the air cadets.
“He filled the house with laughter. He was always up to something silly. That’s why we were so shocked.”
Since the boy’s death, his family has learned that he was the victim of bullying through social media.
Kutcher said bullying and social media were a focus of the discussions he held with families.
“We have a new technology here and we have not learned how to control it,” he said. “It allows for the bullying to continue outside the common institutions where kids gather.”
Kutcher compared social media and the use of mobile devices to automobiles, noting that there were no stop signs, seat belts, or drunk driving legislation when cars were first introduced.
“It took a while before society came up with rules, regulations and legislation that helped us control that technology,” he said. “What we’re now faced with is this technology that may not be as benign as we expected.”
But Kutcher said suicide is the result of a “complexity of different factors” that usually can’t be boiled down to just social media or bullying.
Three teenagers in Cape Breton committed suicide in recent months, a disturbing trend that some have called a crisis.
Although Kutcher said he is still investigating what could have contributed to the suicides, he said it’s important to remember that suicide is a rare event.
Still, it can occur in clusters with multiple suicides in a region over a relatively short period of time, he said.
“We call that the tyranny of small numbers,” Kutcher said. “It can look like it’s a pattern but if you look at a long period of time the total number of deaths by suicide can remain static over 20 years.”
In Nova Scotia, he said there are roughly five or six suicides per 100,000 young people.
For years, suicide was something police and media shied away from reporting publicly on, partly out of a fear of copycat deaths.
The opposite is often happening now, where deaths are discussed at length, Kutcher said.
“What I’ve seen happen in a relatively short period of time is we’ve gone from not discussing suicide in the media at all to the complete opposite,” he said. “I think there is a better understanding now that both ends of those pendulum swings are not very helpful.”
Kutcher said he plans to make several recommendations to the province’s health and education ministers, including revisiting the provincial suicide prevention framework, mental health literacy initiatives and classroom-based resources.
Melski said the biggest thing Justin’s family is trying to get across is to “speak with love.”
“There is so much hatred in the world. It would go a long way if just everyone spoke with love instead of hate.”