Reaching Out

Local community rallies together to help youth contemplating suicide.

The year 2011 was a tragic one in the Comox Valley—three youth took their own lives during a four-month period.  To put it in perspective, sickness that’s as many youth suicides as there was in the 10 year period from 2000 to 2010.

A community can’t just dust itself off and carry on after losses of this nature.  There is a huge amount of mourning that takes place, viagra dosage not just by individuals who have lost a loved one, plague but communal mourning as well, because we are all affected.  But beyond that, there is a sense that something must be done.  There are questions we need to ask: “Why did this happen?”  “What does it mean?”  “What do we need to learn?” and “What can we do more of, or do differently, to prevent this happening again?”  And as answers come, there is work to be done.

The Comox Valley has been asking these questions, and doing this work, for months now.  Much of this has been led by the our institutions—the local School District, the Valley’s numerous suicide prevention and intervention services—but individuals too are looking to understand, and to help.

Local community rallies together to help youth contemplating suicide.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

The first set of questions—the ones that look back and seek to understand causes—are particularly hard to answer.

In response to tragedy, one of the first things people want to know is, “Why did this happen?” However, this very human desire is often thwarted by the complex nature of suicide, says David Hext, an adolescent resource worker who deals with suicide prevention on behalf of both St. Joseph’s Hospital and the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

“People want definitive answers but they are very hard to produce.  Suicide is complex.  What makes one person feel suicidal will create resiliency in someone else,” says Hext.  Addictions, a history of suicide in the family, trauma, abuse, bullying—all are risk factors, but it’s hard to say why some kids respond with suicidal thoughts or actions, while others don’t.

“For some reason, in some families or people the repertoire of responses include the option of suicide,” Hext says.  Although answers are hard to come by, we absolutely need to find out as much as we can, he emphasizes.  Locally, one of the people charged with this task is the Regional Coroner, Matt Brown.

The Coroner’s office is part of our public health network.  “Our job is to investigate death and prevent it,” explains Brown.  With the youth suicide death count at three by fall of last year, the Coroner’s office launched a full-scale investigation, which is still going on.  In November, Brown issued a report to the public.

The report was, in some ways, reassuring—the investigation has found no link between the deaths, alleviating fears that this was a suicide epidemic spreading through the youth population.  The three youths were not socially connected; there was no proof of addiction, abuse, ongoing mental health issues or bullying.  There was no evidence of any gaping hole in our social fabric.

This should not be taken as a message to be complacent, warns Dr. Charmaine Enns, the North Island Medical Health Officer, another key figure in our public health network.  “Although we are not in a state of crisis, every suicide, not just among youth, is a suicide too many,” says Enns.  “We need to ask ‘What are we doing to make sure we don’t see this again.  What are we doing in our schools?  At the community level?’”

These are the next set of questions, the ones that look forward.  In the midst of such a dark topic, these are the questions that bring light, because there are things we have been doing and can do, communally and individually.

Probably the most immediate answer to “What can we do?” is simply this—start a conversation.  Many people involved in the issue identify a long-held taboo against even mentioning suicide.  But talking, they say, is essential.

“Much of the community work for suicide prevention is about opening the dialogue, about putting the light on it for people,” says Dr. Enns.

This is the same conviction that motivated Ashley Anness, a 21-year-old former Highland student, to found the Comox Valley Suicide Awareness Group on Facebook.   (A Facebook Group is a public online forum anyone can join to share information and discussion around a common interest.)

Anness, who had struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts in her teens, and lost a good friend to suicide in 2009, set up the Group October 24, in response to what she felt was a pressing need among young people for a venue to discuss suicide.  Still, she was surprised at the intensity of the response.

“I got it started at about 9:00 pm and within two or three hours, we had about 500 members.  By the next morning there were 2,000.  By 9:00 that morning I’d been contacted by CHEK News, A Channel, the Echo and the Record,” she says.  Other friends joined in to help her and the project grew to include a Twitter feed, a gold ribbon awareness-raising campaign, a meeting with Comox Mayor Paul Ives to promote the idea of Comox Valley Suicide Prevention Week, and plans to hold events where young people can learn about suicide prevention.

“Young people really need to talk about this,” says Anness.

One reason for the taboo against discussing suicide is the fear that talking about it will promote it.  There is, in fact, a kernel of truth in this.  Studies have shown increases in suicide after media coverage.  However, most people agree that the problem isn’t discussion of suicide per se, but rather sensationalized coverage, with lavish eulogies of the departed, detailed descriptions of their last moments, and huge photo spreads—an approach can come close to romanticizing suicide, distorting its awful reality.

“It’s not romantic.  It’s awful.  There is nothing more final,” says Dr. Enns.

Adolescent outreach worker Hext says he’s troubled that some of the responses to the recent suicides seem to whitewash the horror out of it.

“I was seeing comments on Facebook like ‘She’s at peace now.’ At peace?  I don’t know.  What are they picturing, that she’s sitting on a cloud somewhere texting her friends?  My image is more of her hanging from a tree with her drawers full, because that’s what happens when you hang yourself, your bowels and bladder let go.  That’s hardly peaceful.”

But this doesn’t mean we should stop talking about suicide altogether, he cautions.  Talking is a big part of what he, and the many other people involved in suicide prevention and intervention, have been doing.

One of the most valuable initiatives is the Suicide Prevention Program, which goes into the Valley’s High Schools.  Small groups watch a 20-minute video and then have time to talk with the facilitator and each other about the issues.  The program has four goals: break the silence that surrounds suicide; give the message that it is preventable; empower audiences to recognize warning signs; and teach people how to help a person at risk of suicide.

This program was founded seven years ago, but came to a halt in 2009 when its sponsor, Crossroads Crisis Centre, closed down.  Luckily, the Wachiay Friendship Centre stepped in to revive the program, and the School District was eager to bring it on board this fall as part of their response to last year’s tragedies.

“We are already seeing benefits of this program,” says Roger Kishi, the program’s director.  “It was fortunate we were able to reintroduce the program when it was so clearly needed.  There was a lot of anxiety in the schools and the program has been an outlet, a venting experience for the kids.  School counsellors’ workloads go through the roof after our presentations because students are going and talking about the issues.”

Schools, obviously, are the best places to find large groups of youth on a daily basis, which makes the School District a key player in suicide prevention.  As well as cooperating with Wachiay to provide the Suicide Prevention Program, the District held an information evening at Mark Isfeld High School last November, where close to 20 different community organizations talked about their programs.

This event not only provided essential information to the 400-odd members of the public who attended, it became a catalyst for closer cooperation between the agencies involved, simply by bringing them together under one roof.  Since then, a community strategy group made up of representatives of these agencies has formed and begun meeting, with the goal of better coordinating their efforts.

As well, the School District, this February, is moving forward to train its counsellors, administrators, and program workers, using the program Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), which teaches caregivers suicide “first-aid”—how to recognize warning signs and respond appropriately.

The Comox Valley currently has three independent ASIST trainers, and as well, the Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA) recently certified two staff members to provide this globally-recognized training.

VIHA made this move partly in response to last year’s tragedies, says VIHA’s Michelle Dartnall.  “We are training not only our counsellors and practitioners, but also our contracted affiliates and health and human service partners.  Down the road, we hope to be able to offer it to the wider community.”

Ideally, everyone involved in care-giving, social services and education would have training of this kind, helping create a strong safety net that would catch at-risk youth before they fell, and connect them to the help they need.

That step—connecting to help—is crucial.  Everyone seems to agree that the Comox Valley has a wonderful array of agencies, programs and service providers.  The key is making sure people know about them and use them.

Counselling and other services truly do stop kids from falling through the cracks, says David Somers, a therapist and Clinical Nurse Leader for the Adolescent Outpatient Service at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

“Experience has shown that the level of risk for suicide drops hugely if the person is connected with some form of counselling service,” says Somers.  “The coroner, in his report, concluded that none of the youth who died last year were connected to helping services in any significant way.  Yet there is so much help out there.”

At the same time, Somers stresses that counselling is not a magic wand that makes everything better.

“The biggest therapeutic effects are out there in real life.  The most important thing is to have or create social supports—being connected to friends, family, your church, your school.  The therapist helps them find these connections.

“If you look across cultures and ages at when people are at risk, it is mainly when they are lacking a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose.  Humans thrive on connection.  The opposite is alienation and purposelessness.  As soon as people are connected and you instil some hope in them that something can change, they start to feel better.”

Somers’ words could apply not just to a suicidal teen, but also to the Comox Valley community as it struggles to move forward after a series of devastating losses.  It is through creating connection, looking for hope, and finding ways to create change that our schools, youth, families and public institutions are not just finding healing, but also working toward a safer future.

We can all share the goal articulated by Medical Health Officer Charmaine Enns:

“What we want to see is no more suicides.  None.”