Faced with the reality that suicide is an issue among its students, the Kenora Catholic District School Board, in northwestern Ontario, is launching a new mental health program.

The initiative, which is believed to be the first of its kind in Ontario, was unveiled Monday and focuses on mental health awareness among young athletes.

One in five of the board's kids "are struggling," with mental illness, the board's mental health lead, Sue Devlin, told CBC News.

"We know that the majority of onsets of mental illness, as well as our youth, are at increased risk of suicide ideation," she said.

Devlin said the pilot project, which is a joint venture between the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and the Kenora Catholic District School Board, is based on Talk Today, a comprehensive program currently being used by several junior hockey leagues in Canada.

There's a reason the program is geared towards student athletes, said Sara Dias, the executive director of the CMHA in Kenora.

"It's very,very clear that in regards to youth within hockey and other sports,that there seems to be a lack of awareness, around suicide and mental health," said Dias.

Organized sports coupled with schooling can create a high stress situation for young athletes, Dias said.  

"We know that we are in a prime position to help our students, because our teachers and our coaches are usually the first people to notice when something is wrong," Devlin said, adding that the board wants to make sure staff are properly trained to assist young athletes, by accessing supports and learning how to recognize the warning signs.

Some staff members have already been trained to intervene when there's a suicide crisis, Devlin said.  "So that's giving them more skills to ask the right questions."

The pilot project will involve 75 student athletes.

Mental health fast facts

  • 70% of mental health problems have their onset during childhood or adolescence
  • As few as one in four children or youth who experience a mental health problem or illness report that they have sought and received services and treatment
  • Suicide remains the second leading cause of death of young people between the ages 10 and 24

Source: CMHA