Community gathers to work through grief, fear
By Sue Tiffin
Published Dec. 5, 2017
The atmosphere in the room at the Hurting to Hope community event held at Haliburton Highlands Secondary School on Nov. 29 was filled with tension, worry, grief, but also hope as parents of elementary and high school students, students themselves, business owners, school professionals, faith leaders and other community members turned out for area youth.
Sitting together at the front of the room, a group of panellists who had come together to lead this follow-up event to October’s Youth Suicide Prevention and Wellness Forum included representatives from Point in Time, the Trillium Lakelands District School Board, Haliburton Highlands Mental Health Services, Kinark Child and Family Services, the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health and the Royal’s Institute of Mental Health Research. The panel faced the crowd of more than 100 people looking for guidance and support in the wake of suicides this year and a heightened sense of bullying and mental health challenges for youth in the area.
“Tonight is really about a dialogue,” said Cecilia Marie Flynn, moderator for the event and youth suicide prevention consultant from the Ontario Centre of Excellence, who introduced a question and answer format to the evening in which audience members wrote down and submitted their questions.
The first asked about pointed questions that could be asked of people who might be having suicidal thoughts, even in the absence of any signs.
“You don’t go up and say, ‘hey, are you suicidal?’ because that’s not how you start a conversation,” said Dr. Ian Manion, an expert in youth mental health from The Royal’s Institute of Mental Health Research who was invited to the community event. “You begin the conversation saying, ‘I notice that things have been a little bit different lately, you seem to be struggling, or you seem not yourself.’ And then, wait. Don’t have a machine gun of questions that’s going to make somebody shut down.”
Manion said people should acknowledge the 50/50 rule, to only talk half of the time but let the other person have a chance to share, and then to really listen, to be attentive to their needs. He suggested people know where and how to access resources to help the person get support if they note they’re struggling, and to be aware that people have good and bad days so the conversation should be ongoing. A father of five, he said he’s had many discussions with his kids that have occurred in the car, where there were fewer distractions.
“The fact that you’ve had a conversation with them ... that they feel connected to you, reduces the risk,” he said.
Manion also answered a question about the risk of contagion, or so-called “copycat suicides.”
“Contagion does happen, does that mean we shouldn’t talk about it?” he asked. “Absolutely not. We can’t afford not to talk about it. It’s how we talk about it.” He said that conversations should include information about supports in place and focus on finding pathways through it so that those struggling don’t feel further isolated, or “suffer in silence.” He spoke against communities telling people to not talk about suicide, as it might deter people from seeking help, and reminded people to tell others if someone needed help.
“It’s more important to save the friend than save the friendship,” he said. “More important that we make sure that person can access some help.”
Manion spoke to the community’s need to ensure youth feel engaged, with opportunities to contribute, to be able to speak for themselves and provide input on what they need and want, and to be provided the tools to overcome adversity. He spoke to a need to break down stigma and referred to his own depression to help the audience understand that everyone, even someone who works in the mental health sector, can be affected.
“I’m also someone that suffers from depression, I’m also someone that had to seek treatment,” he said, noting that depression can be an ongoing issue. “Start recognizing the things that might contribute to stigma ... it’s not, you have it or don’t have it ... the reality is we all struggle at times, it comes and goes.”
Members on the forum talked about the importance of using appropriate language – such as that someone died by suicide rather than that they committed suicide – and encouraging people get help for mental health challenges just as they would for physical injuries.
When asked about how the mental health issue for youth could be defined by a community member who said they were responding to the call to be part of a caring community, Marg Cox, executive director of Point in Time, responded.
“We’re a community that has been losing people,” she said. “We’re a community, whether it’s through high-risk behaviour, whether it’s death by suicide, whether it’s another tragedy, we are a community that has been losing people. We know when we’re a tight community, everybody knows each other or knows somebody that knows somebody. If this was to happen in an urban area, you wouldn’t be as connected to the losses in the area. But when there’s lots of people in the community and we’re a tighter community, you know somebody or you know of somebody that’s been impacted. When these tragedies have come close together, they have that much more impact. There’s a lot of people out there hurting, a lot of people impacted, and people are putting their stake in the ground to say, how can we make our community more inclusive, how can we reduce the risk in our community and how can we make improvements to turn things around.”
Several questions about bullying were asked of the panel, who spoke of the connection between bullying and suicide.
“When we talk about suicide, it’s incredibly complex,” said Manion. “It is not ever just one thing that results in someone being in a situation where they feel they can’t go on anymore ... Bullying can be one of many factors.”
Manion said he has heard people say that if bullying stopped, suicide would stop, but said although it’s important to deal with bullying, eradicating it would be reducing just one of many contributors.
Parents in the audience praised the work of the community services and groups that came together to host the event, which many said helped them become more aware about the number of resources available in the area and with some of the questions they had about helping their kids through their grief, but also said they were looking for more conversation about bullying and strategies to cope with it.
Marianne Davis, whose kids are in elementary school, appreciated the event and the work that went into it by service providers, but wanted to hear more about dealing with bullying in the community, and how to talk to her kids about it.
“Even if a seed was planted now to help me in dealing with a situation that is inevitably going to happen at some point, unfortunately and as scary as that is, that’s sort of what I was hoping to get from [the event], some strategies of how to talk to my kids,” she said.
“I guess I was a little disappointed,” said Davis. “I was hoping there was some kind of, something in place now, dealing with the current situation I’ve heard about with bullying and how extreme it has gotten. I had hoped there was something they might say, this is what we’re planning on doing, this is what we are doing, and this is how you as a community can help [about the specific issue of bullying].” She noted that people are “hurting and in need right now.”
Davis said she has spoken to her kids about bullying but hoped to hear further from experts to help guide her and give her confidence in having those conversations. Although she thought it was helpful hearing about programs in place at schools and in the community that were helping kids in need, she thought a series of discussions about bullying would be well-attended.
“I’ve spoken to so many parents with kids of all ages who are experiencing bullying,” she said. “Maybe they’re not even involved in the situation but they see it happening, and some of them are scared to talk about it. I didn’t know what the topic was necessarily going to be [at the event]. I thought it was going to be more focused on that, and I was surprised there wasn’t more discussion about it, definitely.”
One parent, who spoke on the grounds of anonymity to protect her kids, said the night created further progress in the community but there was a long way to go in getting proper support for those in need, still.
“We are making steps forward,” she said. “These people that are coming into town helping us, are above and beyond what we’ve ever had. It is going somewhere, but it’s not going to happen overnight and I think that’s what a lot of people want – and me, too. ”
She said her own kids have had much support through challenges due to people knowing to assist them in seeking help, because of help from trusted community members and as a result of her advocacy but that it was important for the entire community to get on board.
She was hoping the conversation at the event and in general would not only focus on the high school, because youth of all ages in the county have been reaching out for help.
“I was excited to see how many people were in that building last night,” she said.
“Because it means that people are aware, and people want to try and people want to do something.”
Alongside the community services represented in the panel, the event was also supported by Haliburton Highlands Health Services, the Haliburton Highlands OPP, the YWCA Peterborough Haliburton Women’s Centre and the Haliburton Highlands Family Health Team.
For further information and upcoming event details, get in touch with Lindsay at firstname.lastname@example.org or 705-457-5345.
Youth in Haliburton County who would like to get involved in promoting wellness can reach out to Lindsay as well, or can text “Youth Engagement” to Lindsay and Deegan at 705-854-0281 (not a crisis line).
Twenty-four hour, free and confidential crisis support is available via Four County Crisis by calling 705-745-6484 or 1-866-995-9933.