Woodstock students, teachers rally to raise mental health awareness

Last school year, five suicides in the Woodstock area highlighted the profound effects of mental illness, particularly among youth.

'Suicide isn’t a solution. It’s devastating to everyone you touched in your life'

Woodstock teens spent the summer seeking answers and assistance in the wake of five suicides there earlier in 2016. (CBC)

Hundreds of students in Woodstock, Ont., head back to class today — without five of their peers, all of whom took their own lives last school year.

Their suicides highlighted the profound effects of mental illness, particularly among youth.

Mandy Bailey was one of the five students who took their own life, shocking the community and, most of all, her family. She would have turned 17 in August.

"It's been difficult," he dad, Ron Bailey said. "I always took a picture of the kids on their first day of school and then I took them out after school for something to eat or whatever they wanted to do. I'm going to miss that." 

He said he won't be the only one who misses his daughter.

"It's very, very hard for us. But it's also very hard for her friends and all the people she touched," he said. "That's part of the message that needs to go out; is that suicide isn't a solution. It leaves disaster and heartbreak in its wake."

Ron Bailey, whose daughter Mandy took her own life, wants kids to know that suicide isn't a solution. (CBC)

"It is devastating to not just your immediate family and the people who love you dearly. It's devastating to everyone you touched in your life," Bailey said.

Some teenagers in the southwestern Ontario city, with a population of 38,000, spent the summer looking for help. And hope.

Teachers there are ready to offer both as class begins.

Noah Walsh and his friends are some of those kids in search of answers and assistance. They have talked a lot this summer. Hanging out near their Woodstock high school, they talk about a friend who is suffering from mental illness.

The teens say their friend is getting help. That's what they want most.

"He was posting things on Facebook and now he's on anti-anxiety medication," Walsh said. 

'You're not alone'

Last school year, one peer left a suicide note on Twitter. Four others simply never came back to class.

Student Miranda Montgomery is part of the Teen Empowerment Network, a group developed by teens for teens in the wake of the five suicides.

She hopes this school year will be different.

"We want to make sure they can come to us," she said. "They can go to school and have someone to talk to. You're not alone."

They have the support of the Thames Valley District School Board.

Superintendant Karen Edgar says teachers and councillors met with students once a week in a local park over the summer, just to listen to them.

"We're really proud of the relationships and the honesty of the students we've had the opportunity to work with over the summer, because they've really set us on a positive course for the fall," Edgar said.

'It's our job to continue'

Mackenzie Gall says she's noticed that students in Woodstock have suddenly become nicer to one another. (CBC)

Every school planner given to students this week will have at least one page devoted to mental health support.

Posters with messages of hope, designed by students, will hang throughout the school.

Students instructed the school board on where to put the motivational posters. Some are in washrooms, others are on the ceiling. They are wherever students wanted them. The board is saying yes to all of it.

"I think it's our job to continue on. I don't think any of them who committed suicide would want us to give up," Walsh said.

Other informational posters are in the hallways.

Some of the posters have head shots of every mental health worker or teacher in the school who can help in a crisis.

The Canadian Mental Health Association in Oxford also offers a 24-hour crisis and outreach service at 519-539-8342 or 1-877-339-8342. Or go here to find a crisis line in your area

Teenagers say the five suicides, which the CMHA called a crisis, forced them to get serious about changing their own behaviour and the supports around them.

Everyone's a 10

In Woodstock and Oxford County, everyone is a 10. (Ten/Ten Teen Empowerment Network/Facebook)

Walsh and his friends sport turquoise bracelets, stamped with the hashtag #YoureA10.

It's how some Woodstock teens have changed the way they see each other.

"I'm going to say this, and it's going to make me sound like a bad guy, but [when] I'm with my friends … we're like, 'Oh, she's very pretty. She's a seven-out-of-10.' But that's not what we're going for," he said. "Everyone is a 10-out-of-10, even with your imperfections, and the things you may think are wrong with you and may not like about yourself, you're still a 10.

"People still care about you. People still love you."

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 of the warning signs

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