'A safe place': Youth mental health conference wraps up in Fort Simpson

A mental health conference for youth across the Dehcho has wrapped up in Fort Simpson, N.W.T. Students and organizers both say the event was needed.

School board organized conference after 4 suicides in community last year

The conference was organized by the Dehcho Divisional Education Council following a number of suicides in the community over the summer. Students took part in several workshops, including art therapy. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

A mental health conference for youth across the Dehcho region has wrapped up in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., and many who attended say it was greatly needed.  

The conference was organized by the Dehcho Divisional Education Council following suicides in the community last year.

About 160 students in grades seven to 12 gathered at Thomas Simpson Secondary School. They took part in workshops about self-defence, sexual health, art therapy and how to deal with trauma. All of the workshop topics had been suggested by the students. 

"I think by doing these kind of workshops — having it more out there that counselling isn't such a taboo subject, that it's okay to go to counselling — those are things we do to help our kids," said Cynthia Browning, who is one of the board's regional school counsellors.

School counsellor Cynthia Browning says conferences like this one can be a 'safe place for [students] to express ... whatever they may be going through without being judged.' (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

Grade 11 student Conner Sanguez is from Fort Simpson and took part in a discussion on suicide and trauma. Workshop participants learned how to identify warning signs if anyone — including themselves — is in crisis.

"People, especially teens, they have thoughts of suicide so I felt like if anyone I knew was ever in that [state of] mind, and if I ever was, I'd know what to do to help," Sanguez said.

Sanguez says there hasn't been a youth conference in years. He feels like organizers may have forgotten how important those conferences could be.

"Given what had happened over the summer … I found it was a really important thing, a really good thing to do."

Connor Sanguez, 16, said the conference was an important thing to have. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

Holly Fantasque, a Grade 11 student from Fort Liard, said the conference helped many of her peers open up.

"[Here] they're participating, they never do anything around the school and I'm so happy they're here and I'm talking to all of them which I never do, so hopefully that changes when I go home," she said. 

Browning says students need spaces like this conference to express themselves in a safe environment.

"They see the adults in the room, they see their teachers, they see the community mental health counsellors and they know that those are the people they can go to for help," she said. 

Holly Fantasque, 16, said the conference helped some of her peers become more social. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

"It's a safe place for them to express ... whatever they may be going through without being judged."

Teachers and educational assistants with the Dehcho Divisional Education Council will be taking part in mental health literacy training at the end of February to learn how to speak to students about mental health and how to refer them for help, if needed.

The Dehcho Divisional Education Council will now get feedback from students about the conference. After that, the council will decide on future workshops in the region.