Woodstock, Ont., suicide crisis driven by depression, disconnection, students say

Bullying, depression and schools that aren’t supportive for students in their moment of need are behind recent suicides, several students said at a rally in Woodstock, Ont.

Parents, teachers and students looking for answers after 5 deaths in recent months

Sydney Lahay shared her story about attempting suicide and what she’s doing now to stay healthy in front of hundreds of students in Woodstock, Ont., on Tuesday. (John Rieti/CBC)

Three weeks ago, Sydney Lahay was hospitalized after threatening to kill herself.

At just 13, she'd already attempted to take her own life twice.

Today, she was one of several Woodstock, Ont., teenagers who put on a brave face and spoke out in front of hundreds about what led them to consider suicide: bullying, depression and schools that weren't supportive in their moment of need.

"I'm still struggling," Lahay told the crowd.

"But things are getting better."

Hundreds of students walked out of class on Tuesday morning to demand more help amid a crisis the entire city is talking about. Five young people have committed suicide here in the last four months — that's as many deaths as the city has high schools.

The rash of suicides at a time when students should be studying for final exams and making plans for summer fun has shocked parents and teachers, as well as city and provincial officials. Many have been left wondering what's behind the suicides and what can be done to stop them.

Lahay told the crowd she struggles with depression, something her older sister has also dealt with. That depression worsened, she said, when her parents split up and she was forced to relocate to Woodstock, where she struggled to make new friends.

At school, which should have been a place to make friends, she said there was judgment and bullying, something teachers didn't stop.

"I believe schools are a huge factor in these suicides and there needs to be some serious change," Lahay said before calling for counsellors to be present at the school at all times.

She also called on teachers to do more to protect students against bullying. "They need to make their classroom feel like a safe place, rather than a war zone," she said.

'Mandy's voice'

Grief counsellors assisted students who were overcome during Tuesday's walkout. (John Rieti/CBC)

Among those in the audience was Ron Bailey, the father of 16-year-old Amanda (Mandy) Bailey, who killed herself on Feb. 29.

Bailey said his family has been shattered by her death, which according to a note was driven by bullying and a feeling that there were no other options left.

Bailey attended the walkout "to be Mandy's voice."

"She would have been leading that parade if she was still with us," he said.

Mandy had been dealing with depression from the age of 10, something that hadn't stopped her from entering gifted programs at school and becoming an accomplished dancer and actress, not to mention a prankster who loved April Fools' Day.

Despite all that was going right, she continued to struggle with anxiety, even after her parents — Mandy's mother, Lorrie, is a teacher in Woodstock — began home-schooling her.

Ron Bailey said he's still struggling to figure out what made his daughter take her own life, but believes the deaths of two other youth prior to her may have been a factor.

The latest suicide victim was a student at Woodstock Collegiate Institute. Four out of the five high schools in the city have dealt with a suicide in recent months. (John Rieti/CBC)

Woodstock, he said, is filled with so much pain right now.

The grieving father urged those in power to increase counselling services in schools and to listen to the recommendations of the youth who spoke at Tuesday's event. He's also hoping Mandy's death doesn't trigger others.

"She wouldn't want any more of this to happen," he said.

"We know that she doesn't want this kind of thing in the community."

Students feeling disconnected, teacher says

Hundreds of students attended Tuesday's walkout, where speeches were made from the back of a pickup truck. (John Rieti/CBC)

Amid the pain, there was a success story.

We shouldn't have to do this. The kids should already know they're wanted.- Pamela Pilon, Woodstock, Ont., teacher

​Ariana MacDonald, a Grade 10 student who said she has struggled with mental health issues, hugged Pamela Pilon, the Grade 7 and 8 teacher she first opened up to about her difficulties.

"People feel like they have to bury it … I guess because it's embarrassing that they're struggling," MacDonald said.

Pilon helped her past that, MacDonald said, by being there for her and finding a way to go easy on her when she was struggling.

And she's not the only one. Pilon estimates some 40 students have come to her to say they're struggling or are contemplating suicide. There's only one way to help, Pilon said.

"I loved them," she said, wiping a tear from her eye.

Pilon said she believes the deaths in Woodstock are the direct result of students feeling disconnected from those around them.

She said teachers need additional training to cope with the current situation, but in the meantime they can accomplish a lot by being there for their students. For example, Pilon promises her students when they graduate Grade 8, "If you make it to high school grad, so will I."

Pilon said she's hopeful the walkout will lead to some change, but admitted she's frustrated it needed to happen for students to be heard.

"We shouldn't have to do this. The kids should already know they're wanted," she said.

Before students headed back to their class, many stopped to write out chalk messages of support for anyone looking down.

"Your voice matters," one said.

"Stay strong," said another.

"Love yourself."

Angela Haggarty, an outreach worker, creates a chalk message in downtown Woodstock. (John Rieti/CBC)

Where to get help

Kids Help Phone:  1-800-668-6868

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre

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

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