It all started with a conversation.
And, it, in turn, has sparked a lot of conversation in the community about suicide — a subject often kept quiet or considered taboo.
Twenty-year-old Ashley Anness of Courtenay, a Highland Secondary School graduate, and 17-year-old Brad Darling of Comox, a current Highland student, were talking about suicide Monday night after learning of the tragic death of Georges P. Vanier Secondary School student Candice Shields.
They created the Comox Valley Suicide Awareness Group on Facebook.
“The conversation started with us just talking about how sad it was that people keep committing suicide in the Valley and how many we’ve seen in the last few years,” said Anness.
They created the Facebook group to build awareness about suicide, and they’re using Twitter and Google Plus to try to raise awareness as well.
“It’s gotten really bad,” said Darling. “We said we’ve got to really do something about it. There’s been talk of doing it, but no one’s just done it, so we finally just did it.”
“If we don’t do something as youth, nothing is going to be done,” added 18-year-old Tara Sedar of Comox, another Highland graduate, who, along with fellow Highland graduate 21-year-old Jordan Moreau of Courtenay, has also played a big role in getting the group started.
There have been five suicides by people aged 19 and younger in the Valley since January 2009, according to the regional coroner. The youth know of four teen suicides since the summer.
To start, the group is focusing on providing awareness.
“It’s also so people can share their stories, and a lot of people have,” said Anness, adding people have also said they want to share their stories but aren’t ready, and the group will be there to give them resources and places to go when they are ready.
“The great part of our group is we have a mixed variety of people — students, parents, school board, teachers, counsellors, pastors,” noted Sedar.
Within 24 hours, the Facebook group had 800 members, and it’s been growing ever since, with many people expressing their desire to help. As of Thursday afternoon, the group had 1,226 members.
“From how many people I’ve seen join and a lot of the things I’ve seen them say on there, this is something they’ve been waiting for,” said Anness.
“The support is incredible,” added Sedar.
Anness hopes the biggest message they can get out is that people aren’t alone.
“So many people, when they get depressed like that and are in a suicidal stage, they feel alone and they feel no one cares about them,” she said. “They need to be told other people have felt that way, other people have been there, and people do feel that way sometimes … Obviously, people do care about them or otherwise, we wouldn’t have started this.”
“If you just reach out, there’s hope anywhere you go, a teacher, parent, pastor or friends,” added Sedar.
They also hope the group gets people talking about suicide, which usually isn’t reported in the media, noted Darling.
The group is “giving taboos the boot,” he pointed out.
“It’s opening up people’s eyes,” he said.
Sedar thinks one reason youth contemplate suicide is they don’t know how to handle all the pressure they are under.
“Teens go through a lot of pressure,” she said. “They’ve got family, work and school; sometimes when you add things like bullying, it’s too stressful. Teens are not very good with coping with their emotions.”
Darling agrees. He is very stressed about graduating and worries about getting all the courses you need, applying for university and not having a job.
“It’s not fun at all,” he said. “But there is a lot of help at school with work experience, grad transition. We have really great counsellors at Highland.”
Anness knows what it feels like to think the only answer is ending your own life. Growing up, she experienced problems with depression and had suicidal thoughts.
“I can understand where kids are coming from,” she said. “Sometimes, it has nothing to do with school at all; sometimes it has to do with your home life.”
She says she was bullied a lot, but she also experienced problems at home, moving between living with her father and living with her grandmother.
“The best thing for me was to deal with my emotions and sort out things in my head,” said Anness, who is pregnant and due in early December. “Now when I look back … if I had ended my life, I wouldn’t have my little baby boy or girl coming.”
Anness tried different types of medication, and she thinks more trials should be done on medication — and that those trials should be done before they give the medication to people.
“Sometimes it makes it worse, and you don’t feel any better at all,” she said. “It also helps to know what triggers you. I think that’s a better way of dealing with it than giving people medication.”
“It seems like our society, when there’s a problem, there’s a pill to fix that,” said Moreau. “But it’s more complicated or even more simple than that. Even just talking to someone might help.”
Darling remembers a story they were told at school about someone who was taking all of their books home from school. Another student offered to help and started talking to them. That person was going to commit suicide, but one person noticing them made all the difference.
“Sometimes a random act of kindness helps,” noted Moreau.
The youth look forward to attending the School District 71-sponsored community forum Community Support for Famililes: An Information Evening to Look at Resources Available for Families in the Comox Valley Nov. 3 at 7 p.m. at Mark R. Isfeld Secondary School.
“It’s a great step to start bringing awareness,” said Sedar.
The four youth believe the school system is doing what it can to help, but they have many ideas about providing services and supports to students.
“They’re doing the best they can with the resources they have,” noted Moreau.
Anness and others met with school board chair Susan Barr and board vice-chair Corinne McLellan Tuesday, and Anness says they came up with many ideas how the group can help the school board and how the school board can help the group.
One of their ideas was peer counselling.
“We said yesterday if students could come in or volunteer counsellors could come in, we could just listen to students and give them our phone number, and if they ever get that low, they can phone us at any time rather than phone someone they don’t know at a Help Line,” said Anness.
“Students would rather talk to people their own age group rather than an adult,” noted Sedar.
Anness, Sedar, Darling and Moreau encourage anyone who is interested in supporting their work to join the Comox Valley Suicide Awareness group on Facebook.
“Most people are positive and say it’s really needed,” said Darling. “Lots of people want to help. I’m proud of our group.”
The youth plan to make the Comox Valley Suicide Awareness group a non-profit organization.
One of the ideas that has come out of the Facebook conversations is starting a ribbon campaign for awareness.
“There’s no shortage of ideas at all,” said Darling.