A program that helps young people build positive relationships and self-esteem through social interaction with their peers is being credited with reducing suicidal thoughts among participants.

Sources of Strength, or SOS, recruits young leaders to steer small groups of their peers through a variety of activities.

Youville Centre, where teenage mothers can finish their high school education while getting support for addictions and mental health issues, is one of 16 Ottawa schools currently offering the SOS program.

"Before, I didn't talk to anybody. I was really, really quiet," said Jessica Critch, a student at the Youville Centre. "Since I've joined the group, it's brought me out. It helps me be a better me."

Messages of hope, strength

Critch and her classmate Olivia Moore said the social activities can be as simple as hanging out and chatting, but the program's key is its focus on messages of hope and strength.

'By promoting connectedness, it prevents future thoughts of suicide.' - Cindy Simpson, Youville Centre

"It helped me get more involved in the school community and put myself out there, and learn to be a better advocate for myself," said Moore. 

Advocates say the program has had an even more dramatic — and potentially life-saving — effect on participants.

During a program update at Ottawa City Hall on Thursday, members of the city's Community Suicide Prevention Network celebrated what they said is the program's success at reducing suicidal thoughts among young people.

Half had suicidal thoughts before SOS

Cindy Simpson, executive director of the Youville Centre, said a survey of departing students conducted before the SOS program was adopted in 2013 showed nearly half had thought about ending their own lives.

"As a result of having a young child and leaving high school, they lose their friends, they're not going to the mall, they're not going to movies," said Simpson. 

While the survey hasn't been repeated, Simpson believes there's been a positive shift since the program began.

"Sources of Strength has allowed them to be more engaged with the community, and so now they're sources of strength for each other," said Simpson. "By promoting connectedness, it prevents future thoughts of suicide."

First launched in North Dakota in 1998, SOS has now spread to 24 states, as well as Manitoba and Ontario.

Ottawa's Community Suicide Prevention Network said 10,154 local students participated in the program in 2015-16.