Nova Scotia

Youth mental health expert heading to Cape Breton in wake of 3 teen suicides

Dr. Stan Kutcher will talk with families, schools and community members in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality about what's needed to address mental health concerns.

'There are a number of questions that everybody is interested in finding the answers to,' says Stan Kutcher

Dr. Stan Kutcher teaches at Dalhousie University in Halifax and focuses on youth mental health and suicide. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

A youth mental health expert will be in Cape Breton next week in the wake of several teen suicides.

Dr. Stan Kutcher will talk with families, young people, schools and health providers about what's needed to address mental health concerns.

Since November, three middle school students in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality have killed themselves.

The most recent death happened last weekend in Sydney Mines, N.S.

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"There are a number of questions that everybody is interested in finding the answers to," said Kutcher, a professor in the psychiatry department at Halifax's Dalhousie University.

"Is this an issue that is an endemic issue? Is it a contagion issue that has to be dealt with? What are the challenges and concerns?"

Contagion is the ripple effect following a number of suicides, where others already at high risk contemplate killing themselves.

Expert will report back to government

Kutcher couldn't say whether that has been a factor in Cape Breton, but said discussing the deaths is important "as long as we talk smart, rather than just talk."  

The provincial government said Health Minister Randy Delorey and Education Minister Zach Churchill contacted Kutcher after the suicides. Churchill said Kutcher will be accompanied by a team of mental health clinicians from the IWK Health Centre to provide "immediate critical support and guidance" to the community.

Education Minister Zach Churchill contacted Dr. Stan Kutcher after three junior high school students took their own lives in Cape Breton. (CBC)

"We all have a responsibility to better understand the factors that contribute to these terrible situations. I know they're complex. I'm sure they're multi-faceted. We need to work with the professionals that can best help us understand," Churchill told reporters on Thursday.

"If there are enhancements that need to be made to our programming, that we can do that with the best information possible."

Kutcher, who will report back to the ministers on his findings, said it would be premature to speculate on any programs or initiatives that might be helpful.

"I never want to prejudge something because that has the potential to take us in the wrong direction," he said.​

Kutcher said he does not yet know if his time in Cape Breton will include any public sessions. 

Kids Help Phone 

Meanwhile, the Atlantic Canadian director of Kids Help Phone is encouraging young people to contact the free service if they find themselves in crisis with nowhere to turn.

"We've all heard the horrific stories of kids waiting to get help through our mental health system," said Shelley Richardson. "It's bogged down. Kids Help Phone is not the answer, but we are a support in that continuum of care for kids."

Kids Help Phone is a national service with call centres in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver that provides 24-hour service. By calling 1-800-668-6868, a child is immediately connected to an experienced, professional counsellor.

Because young people may find it difficult to dial up a stranger, Richardson urges parents to be proactive and make a phone call together to become familiar with the service.

'It's OK to ask for help'

"It's not a sign of poor parenting. It's a sign of great parenting to teach your kids that it's OK to ask for help. We all struggle at times," said Richardson.

"Our counselling staff at schools do a great job although they're inundated I'm sure. And they're not there in the middle of the night and they're not there on weekends and on holidays."

Richardson also recommends teachers make students aware of the service and keep a number posted where it can be readily seen.

Kids Help Phone also provides a live-chat service through its website Wednesday to Sunday in Atlantic Canada between 7 p.m. to 3 a.m.

If you are in distress or considering suicide, there are places to turn for support. Nova Scotia's Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team can be reached at (902) 429-8167 or Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868. The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention also has information about where to find help.

With files from Hal Higgins and Information Morning

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