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Preventing youth suicide

Annual race coming up July 2 in Arthur.
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Steven Hutchison took his own life in a university dorm room three years ago. His emotional struggles happened in silence. No one close to him realized how deeply his pain reached.

Each year, the organization #GetInTouchForHutch holds a fundraising race in Arthur, north of Guelph, in memory of the young man, and to help facilitate dialogue about suicide - encouraging those in pain to speak, encouraging those near to listen. It happens on July 2.

In Canada, youth suicide accounts for nearly one quarter of all deaths of those 15-24 years of age. In recent months the problem has made stark and disturbing headlines, as the tragedy of youth suicide in First Nations communities, and in nearby Woodstock appears to be escalating.

“Suicide is not an easy word to say or topic to discuss,” said Myrna Hutchison, Steve’s mother. “With the work that we have been doing over the past three years, we do feel like there are more conversations happening, not only about suicide, but also about mental health in general. This needs to continue - we need to  make these conversations part of our everyday communication.”

She said her son cared deeply about his family, friends and those in his social circle. Through its education and awareness events and activities, #GetInTouchForHutch works to ensure that the care her son felt for others is perpetuated, “that we continue to take care of those around us knowing that we never want another family to have to experience the immense sadness that we have losing our son to suicide.”

A struggling young person, she added, needs to know and truly understand that there are people near who care about them and are willing to help, no matter what they are dealing with.

“They need to know that it is OK to not be OK sometimes, and it is OK to talk about our problems no matter how big or small they are,” she said. “Reaching out can be scary, but when you do it allows someone to start helping you carry the weight that you have been bearing on your own.”

Living with Steven’s loss has been enormously difficult, she said.

“The reality is that the grief of losing Steven is something that is with us every day,” she said.  “Life will never be the same and with everything that we do, we recognize that something very important in our life is missing and will never again be a part of us.”

The work the family does is part of their healing, she added. It also helps them better understand what Steven may have been experiencing, and in turn what steps to take to help others having similar challenges.  

“This is the legacy that we wish to continue in Steven’s name,” she said.

Five suicides this year in Woodstock among young people under the age of 19 has been called a contagion of suicide. It sparked a recent mass walkout by students in that city, all demanding that the issue be confronted.  

Myrna Hutchinson said the youth suicides in Woodstock are a tragedy that will have an immense and lasting impact on families, friends and the entire community.

“My heart goes out to everyone there,” she said.  “I will stand by the thought that the risk of suicide loss does not go away by not talking about it. The tragedies that have occurred in Woodstock have started a conversation and that is a first step. The youth are crying out for help and we need to find a way to respond to that.”  

The great shame of a death by suicide is that the person felt they had no other choice, that their life would not get better and their hopelessness would not recede, she said.

“We need to find a way to get to our kids before they get to that point and we can only do that if we understand what it is that they are dealing with,” she said. “This insight can only come from communicating - conversations about mental health need to become a part of our every day, not just a response after something serious happens.”

The stigma attached to reaching out for help is huge. #GetInTouchForHutch strives to change that attitude and lift the stigma. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, and it helps someone in need to connect with someone who will do their best to make things better, she added.

“We all need to work together to create an environment where everyone can be comfortable talking about their thoughts, feelings and emotions, whether they be positive or negative, happy or sad,” she said, adding that enhanced services for youth in crisis are a must.

Letting young people know what help is available to them is a good first step, and schools, libraries, and community centres have a role to play in disseminating that information.  
“There is so much opportunity for change that we believe can happen, but it is going to take all of us collectively to make that happen.”

#GetInTouchForHutch was formed shortly after Steven’s death, said committee member Ami Tedesco. In the group’s effort to break down the stigma around emotional struggles and mental illness, more than $125,000 has been raised to support a number of mental health organizations that help young people.  

Tedesco said youth suicide is on the rise. Bullying, particular cyberbullying, is contributing to the problem, and there are many more stresses in the lives of young people than there were in former times. Many of those have come into their lives through digital technology, which brings the world and all of its problems to their fingertips.

When those stresses become overwhelming, young people need to know where to turn for help. Guelph has good services, like Kids Help Phone (http://www.kidshelpphone.ca/teens/home/splash.aspx), by there is an urgent need for enhanced services.

“It is about getting information into the hands of young people - here’s who you call to get the help you need,” she said.

Learn more about #GetInTourchForHutch and the 4th annual race and other events at http://getintouchforhutch.com/.

The Canadian Mental Health Association issued a statement recently on youth suicide in light of tragic events in Attawapiskat First Nation, Pimickamak Cree Nation, and in Woodstock.

CMHA calls suicide a serious public health problem that is associated with a number of factors and life experiences. Research demonstrates that a combination of preventive approaches can help increase the chances of people seeking the help they need, according to the statement.

“What is needed now is investment so Canadians – and especially children and youth – can get the help they need when they need it,” it reads.Timely and equal access to mental health supports, services and treatment is lacking.

“Investing in evidence-based prevention strategies for children and youth can meaningfully reduce the risk of serious mental health problems and illnesses developing in adulthood,” the statement concludes.  



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Rob O'Flanagan

About the Author: Rob O'Flanagan

Rob O’Flanagan has been a newspaper reporter, photojournalist and columnist for over twenty years. He has won numerous Ontario Newspaper Awards and a National Newspaper Award.
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