A dramatic walkout by high school students in Woodstock, Ont., Tuesday has drawn attention to a rash of youth suicides in the small city, with many calling the situation a "crisis" and calling for bolstered mental-health services even as the cause of the suicide "contagion" remains painfully unclear.
In a demonstration organized by students but joined by parents and local officials, hundreds of high schoolers left their classrooms and marched to a square in the city centre on Tuesday morning for a round of speeches urging better support for youth in mental-health crises.
Five people under 19 have taken their own lives this year in Oxford County, which comprises Woodstock and a handful of small towns, while 36 have attempted suicide or expressed suicidal thoughts, local police said.
Residents hope that speaking about the issue will help reduce the stigma around depression and pressure governments to increase services.
Carrie Sims, the mother of a local agender student named Tai Hope who has suffered suicidal thoughts in the past, said that it was good for the community to break its silence over the issue.
"There hasn't been enough talking about it by anybody, I don't think," she said. "Until the youth brought it up."
Tai, a Grade 11 student at Woodstock Collegiate Institute, said that students became determined to speak up after the year's fifth youth suicide, a friend of Tai's.
"It was more of an eruption," Tai said. "'We have to get something going now. If we're losing youth at this rate, we're not going to have any left.'"
Sporting a shock of purple hair, Tai spoke to a crowd of hundreds near city hall about suffering from depression.
"I was pretty nervous," Tai said. "But I felt like having that speech happen impacted quite a number of people. … Being able to talk about it is the first step to getting help."
Ms. Sims estimated that some 400 people attended the speeches, including Woodstock Mayor Trevor Birtch. Many students wore T-shirts emblazoned with semicolons, a popular symbol of the suicide awareness movement. The punctuation mark represents the choice to continue living, as semicolons prolong sentences.
Though it was laced with sorrow, the mood of the event was largely upbeat, students say.
"It was a mixture of mourning the loss of the students who passed. But I also feel like it was a celebration," Tai said. "The energy in the square today was phenomenal."
Those who spoke said they felt relieved to share their experience and that they hoped their words would inspire others to a similar candour. Mackenzie Gall, a Grade 11 student, helped organize the event after years of struggling with bullies and teachers who doubted her ability, before a diagnosis of ADHD and dyslexia.
"I've always been hiding and kept it to myself, but after seeing this all happen, I knew it was time to speak up," she said. "And I feel a huge weight off my shoulders."
Already, the community's new openness about mental health and suicide seems to have paid dividends. A Facebook group, Youth Suicide Prevention in Woodstock Ontario, has already been contacted by three suicidal young people, said Ms. Gall. And since the suicide wave has gained attention, friends and family have been more supportive of her own mental-health struggles, she added.
Still, many Woodstock students believe that more material help is needed. They call for full-time mental-health counsellors in schools and beds for suicidal youth at the local hospital. They believe these services could have kept some of their friends and fellow students alive.
Oxford MPP Ernie Hardeman says he will be meeting with the ministers of community safety, education and youth services this week to discuss extra funding and staff for the region. But he said making young people aware of the services already available – such as suicide prevention help lines – was a parallel challenge.
"Our No. 1 issue is that we have to make sure that young people who find themselves in this difficult situation know that there are people they can call," he said. "This isn't [only] about making sure that we have services; it's making sure that we don't have anyone deprived of help."
Meanwhile, the city is trying to explain why so many of its young people have felt compelled to end their lives. Some point to lack of services, but a frustrating sense of uncertainty continues to reign. Woodstock Police Chief Bill Renton said that rumours of a suicide pact were unfounded.
"It's very perplexing," Chief Renton said.
"We're working all together to try and understand why, and we wish we would fix it and help the youth, but no, we don't have those answers."
As local residents search for answers, the pain of the situation continues to ripple outward in a close-knit city: from the friends and family of the victims, to police officers who have responded to suicide calls, to the mayor himself, who says he has had many sleepless nights in recent months.
Along with answers, many are now seeking a silver lining amidst the city's heartbreak. Some have pointed to Tuesday's demonstration and the new frankness about mental health that it represents, as a candidate.
"That could be one consolation that comes out of these tragedies – that more people are sharing their stories," Mr. Birtch said. "There is light at the end of the tunnel."