Ripples of positive change felt in North Battleford after 'shell shock' of suicide tragedies

A number of youth suicides that have shaken North Battleford, Sask. were top of mind at a walk to raise awareness about mental health in the community last week.

Sask. community shaken by a number of suicide deaths since January

A steady drizzle was not enough to deter participants at a walk last week to raise awareness about mental health in North Battleford, where a number of young people have taken their own lives in 2018. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

School counsellor Melissa Fuhr says a spate of youth suicides earlier this year hit teenagers in North Battleford like "shell shock."

Now, she says, they're settling into a "different normal."

"They definitely were affected and very sad and very, just really taken aback but they bounced back," said Fuhr, who works with students at the John Paull II Collegiate high school.

"They still care about each other and they're managing really well."

Annual walk evolves

Fuhr and a group of 20 high school students were part of a crowd that huddled under umbrellas to shelter from the drizzle that settled over North Battleford last Tuesday.

The group was taking part in the annual Walk for Awareness, which started many years ago to recognize residents of a local psychiatric hospital who were ready to transition into their own homes.

John Paul II Collegiate personal counsellor Melissa Fuhr (left) with students Emily Simon and Chloe Winterhalt. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

The event has since evolved into a general walk to raise awareness about mental health, and that mission has intensified after a series of tragedies since the start of 2018.

Three young people took their own lives in the span of a month ending at some point in January.  A school leader reports another two suicides have occurred since January.

The first spate of deaths sparked a community response and the creation of Better Together, a new youth support group focused on mental health.

Collaborative response

The group comprises youth and faith groups, schools, sporting groups and the provincial ministries of social services and corrections and policing.

You're always gonna have people who don't understand and they don't look at you the same if they find out you have a mental illness.- Charmaine Dosch, former resident of Saskatchewan Hospital

About 300 people attended a community meeting in January and social workers say the tragedies have led to a shift in attitudes toward mental health in North Battleford, which is about 130 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.

Fuhr said the young people at John Paul II Collegiate have stepped up to support their fellow students.

"They really want to step up and help get the message out to each other and to the community about how important it is to take care of each other and to take care of themselves," said Fuhr.

"So in spite of all the darkness and sadness there's a lot of light."
The walk to raise awareness in North Battleford, which has been recovering from a number of suicide deaths recently. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

The Ministry of Education announced Monday there would be additional help: $10,000 would be spent for work with Kevin Cameron, the executive director of the Canadian Centre for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response. 

Cameron's work will take place within the Living Sky and Light of Christ school divisions.

Training amid trauma

Brenda Vickers, the director of education at the Living Sky School Division, said the division has ramped up training for teachers to help them cope in situations where students are experiencing trauma.

She agrees that people in the community are now speaking more openly about mental health, adding that there is a stronger "bond" between agencies.

Vickers added that some support agencies now have a stronger visual presence at the school.

Although the schools appear to be running as normal, Vickers believes that is probably not the case.

"There are times when we are on high alert but I think what this has taught us is it's something you need to be ready to activate and it's education and work that has to continue all the time," said Vickers.
Sylvia Duhaime lost her teenage grandson and her brother-in-law to suicide. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

"Outwardly, it looks like things are running relatively normally but I think probably, you know, it's not back to normal."

She echoed Fuhr's comments that perhaps the community is living in a "new normal", where there is a heightened awareness about suicide and mental health.

The Living Sky School Division has written to the provincial government to request more mental health resources.

Walk participant lost 2 relatives

Sylvia Duhaime, who has lost two relatives to suicide in the past four years, participated in the walk for awareness last Tuesday.

She said she has seen attitudes to mental health change dramatically over time but she believes this year, in particular, has forced people to be more open about mental health.  

"People have become really aware, with that large number of suicides happening in this community, and they want to do something about it," said Duhaime.

"They want to meet with young people and try to talk about alternatives to suicide."
Charmaine Dosch is a former resident of the Saskatchewan Hospital for psychiatric patients. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

Duhaime's grandson Cody was 19 when he took his own life during his second year of college in Illinois. Her brother-in-law, Robert Duhaime, died last year.

She said their deaths had changed her as well.

"I feel that I'm certainly a lot more open person and I really want to help and make other people aware that there's options," said Duhaime.

"I think I've changed and become a lot more compassionate and I try to be more understanding with the mental health community in general."

Speaking more freely

Charmaine Dosch is a former resident of the Saskatchewan Hospital for psychiatric patients.

She said she can speak more freely about her own experiences now because she believes people are becoming more accepting of mental illness.

"You're always gonna have people who don't understand and they don't look at you the same if they find out you have a mental illness," said Dosch.

"But with Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and Sask. Hospital and Battlefords Union Hospital, they give you a sense of security."

Mental health at schools

Dosch hopes to see mental health nurses employed at North Battleford schools, and at schools in rural areas, to help young people seek help at a younger age.

Having grown up in a small town about an hour's drive from Saskatoon, she did not have access to mental health supports in her community.

"It would have helped a lot if I had somebody," said Dosch.
Jane Zielke de Montbrun, the executive director at the Canadian Mental Health Association Battlefords branch, pictured at the mental health awareness walk in North Battleford. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

"There was nothing in our school for that, we didn't have a guidance counsellor, we didn't have mental health nurses, we didn't have psychiatrists, you had to go to Saskatoon."

Dosch has now been living on her own for a year and a half in a secure building that is also home to other people with mental illness.

She believes better access to counselling would have helped her tackle her mental illness at a younger age.

Helping people feel safe

Jane Zielke de Montbrun is the executive director of the CMHA Battlefords branch.  

She said an event called Sick Not Weak in March was so well-supported by the North Battleford community that about $34,000 was raised for the CMHA.

Zielke de Montbrun said those funds will go towards education and providing tools for people who are working directly with youth to help prevent a similar tragedy happening again.

"I think the more we talk about it, the more we present ourselves as somebody that they can come and talk to and feel comfortable talking to," she said.

"But most importantly to feel safe, that's a good thing."

If you need help

Mental health resources are available through the HealthLine at 811.

The federal government set up a toll-free number for First Nations and Inuit people who are experiencing mental health issues: 1-855-242-3310. 

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Here are some of the warning signs: 

  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Purposelessness.
  • Anxiety.
  • Feeling trapped.
  • Hopelessness and helplessness.
  • Withdrawal.
  • Anger.
  • Recklessness.
  • Mood changes.