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To help others who might be struggling as her son, Lucas, once did, Laureen Rushton works with Roots of Hope, a community-based and community-led suicide-prevention initiative funded by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

A teenager who loved to act and sing, Lucas Rushton performed at his high school in Truro, N.S., and with the youth theatre program at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre, the largest professional theatre company in Atlantic Canada. His passions in music, theatre and film were wide and varied; he loved Elvis and the Trailer Park Boys.

Lucas had a lot of plans, says his mother, Laureen Rushton, including studying performing arts at Sheridan College. “Someday, he planned to make it to Broadway. That was my son’s dream.”

He never realized that dream. In May, 2021, Lucas died by suicide at the age of 18. His was one of the estimated 3,769 deaths by suicide in Canada that year.

“Lucas struggled for a long time with mental illness. He tried many therapists,” says Ms. Rushton. “We tried to get him proper care at our closest children’s hospital, over an hour away, in Halifax. At the end, he was angry at a broken, frustrating system that was letting down young people.”

Finding access to timely mental-health supports can be difficult, especially outside major cities. To help others who might be struggling as her son once did, Ms. Rushton now works with Roots of Hope, a community-based and community-led, suicide-prevention initiative funded by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, a national non-profit set up by the federal government in 2007 in response to a Senate committee report.

The program provides support tailored to local needs and priorities, and trains people to provide care within their own communities. In one case that might be establishing a crisis line for young people, in another supporting traditional healing practices in a First Nation.

“The framework is designed to be tailored,” says Logan Seymour, manager of prevention and promotion initiatives for the MHCC, who oversees Roots of Hope.

The project was first implemented in 2017 in the Burin Peninsula, a fishing area of about 18,000 people in Newfoundland. Eighteen communities in four provinces and one territory have since adopted the framework.

Ms. Rushton got involved with Roots of Hope Nova Scotia a few months after her son’s death. She shares Lucas’s story with local schools and communities to break down stigma about suicide, an important component of the program.

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In Hamilton, the Suicide Prevention Community Council of Hamilton and the Canadian Mental Health Association are acting as program leads. There, the group identified men aged 50 to 59 as one of its priority populations, says Sid Stacey, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioural science at McMaster University, as well as chair at the SPCCH.

In response to the high suicide rates among men, SPCCH began the safeTALK initiative, which trained 1,349 Hamilton police officers, providing them tools on how to identify and facilitate help for anyone who might be at risk of suicide.

Improving mental-health literacy is a critical part of the Roots of Hope framework, says Michel Rodrigue, president and chief executive officer of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

“It’s about recognizing mental-health challenges in yourself and others. But it’s also about challenging the stigma and taboo that’s associated with mental health,” he says.

Another area of focus for Roots of Hope is means reduction, which emphasizes implementing barriers to lethal substances used in suicides.

Simon Sherry, who runs the Crux Psychology clinic and teaches psychology and neuroscience at Dalhousie University, has been critical in the past of the Nova Scotia government’s response to suicide, especially since numbers in the province reached what he calls “a crisis level” in 2022, when 155 people died by suicide, up from 147 in 2021 and 137 in 2019.

Dr. Sherry says he’s encouraged by Roots of Hope and the emphasis it puts on means reduction. “Right now, that’s our best shot to actually reduce death by suicide,” he says.

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Laureen Rushton holds photos of her late son, Lucas, who was passionate about music, theatre and film before dying by suicide in 2021.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Nova Scotia’s Department of Health and Wellness allocated about $1.24-million to Roots of Hope in 2020-2021, but the program and specific projects are also funded by multiple non-profits and provincial foundations.

The funds have helped Roots of Hope Nova Scotia finance research, public-awareness campaigns, traumatic loss facilitation training, and efforts such as a new project with Smriti Jha, a Dalhousie Master of Computer Science student to develop an app to support caregivers who are helping someone who has suicidal thoughts.

“I’m also very proud of the connections that are being made between the story tellers,” says Seana Jewer, a community engagement leader with the Nova Scotia Health Authority, of the local network of people who share their experiences of having thoughts of suicide or who have lost someone to suicide.

In Truro, N.S., Ms. Rushton says her community is still reeling from the April, 2020, loss of 22 lives in the region in the deadliest civilian mass shooting in Canadian history. Emily Tuck, a 17-year-old who was killed along with her parents, Jolene Oliver and Aaron Tuck, was a friend of Lucas’s.

“I can’t say whether the mass shooting made the problem worse, but I know Lucas struggled with that a lot,” Ms. Rushton says.

In addition to sharing her son’s story, Ms. Rushton has a Facebook page, Memories of Lucas Rushton, using the hashtag #lukeslegacy, to share posts about hope, loss and the community that’s been built around Lucas’s memory and to raise money for suicide prevention.

Mr. Rodrigue says that communities that have adopted Roots of Hope are able to use research and best practices from other jurisdictions to inform their own efforts. He’d like to see other provinces join Nova Scotia and the handful of provinces that have already implemented the framework.

“It’s a living, breathing model. The more communities implement it, the more they can learn from and inform each other.”

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