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Program aims to bring the issue of suicide out of the shadows

Windsor Star

Sep 15, 2016

By Dave Waddell, Windsor Star

Dane Tiberia didn’t want to be one of those people who never saw the tragedy of a suicide coming and then wondering could he have done something differently.

Instead, the Grade 12 student chose to be one of 50 students at Tecumseh Vista Academy who has taken the safeTALK program aimed at educating students about recognizing the signs of trouble and how to react.

“I knew sooner or later I’d come across someone who needed help,” said Tiberia, who took the course at the suggestion of guidance counsellors two years ago.

“I wanted to be prepared to do the right thing when I did.”

Tecumseh Vista students Dane Tiberia, left, Abbey Brown, Chloe Boutros and Alyssa Cusenza discuss suicide prevention week issues on Sept. 13, 2016. Tyler Brownbridge, Windsor Star

Raising awareness of mental health issues isn’t just limited to this week’s Suicide Prevention Awareness Week at Vista.

In addition to safeTALK, Vista was the first high school in Southwestern Ontario to have a chapter of The national organization helps students run events to raise awareness of mental health issues.

For Chloe Boutros, taking the wraps off a topic long considered taboo is the main objective of the week.

“Mental health issues are such a big part of high school,” Boutros said. “There is so much change.

“safeTALK has helped give us the tools to help others and to help ourselves.”

As part of the week, students and staff across Essex County will wear yellow clothing and ribbons along with partaking in some educational events and discussions about the second-leading cause of death of among youth 10 to 24 years of age.

“It’s widespread. So many young students are thinking of suicide,” said Charysse Pawley, supervisor of social work and attendance counselling services for the Greater Essex County District School Board.

“Sometimes they don’t know where to reach out to or how to express themselves to a friend or family member and what to say.”

Fortunately, neither the public board nor the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board has experienced a student death by suicide in recent years.

Jennifer Klassen, a psychologist and mental health lead for the Catholic board, admits she remains too busy.

“We still have too many kids having thoughts of suicide,” Klassen said. “I’m seeing over 100 kids a year for mental health issues.”

The boards have introduced a number of programs in recent years to develop coping strategies and put support networks in place.

Klassen said the goal is to generate more conversation, raise awareness and educate students on who to reach out to for help.

“This next generation is more ready to talk,” Klassen said. “It’s become more normalized to share, as we’ve seen through social media.”

Both boards use the safeTALK program.

It’s a three-hour seminar, which helps identify the warning signs, educates on asking the right questions and seeking the right help.

Administrators, principals, vice-principals and classroom staff in each board have taken the safeTALK course.

The public board has also had about 300 students take the course thanks to funding provided by Libro Credit Union. Students must be 15 years or older to take the course.

The Catholic board hasn’t offered the course to students, preferring to focus on encouraging students to reach out to an adult for help.

“The concern is the kids might try to deal with this on their own,” Klassen said. “We teach to find the right adult.”

Abbey Brown, a Grade 12 student at Vista, said the concern of taking on such a burden is a common fear initially.

“The main message of the program is we aren’t supposed to shoulder these burdens,” Brown said. “We’re there as a resource and to direct them where to go for help.”

Vista guidance teacher Simona Baggio said getting someone to talk is a crucial first step to getting help.

“Communication is the key,” said Baggio, explaining the public board’s approach. “Kids talk to kids.

“We’ve seen the positives of increased awareness, that you’re not alone, from having those conversations.”

A second program, Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, has also been used at both boards.

The two-day seminar is a beefed-up version of safeTALK aimed at educating administrative officials and those in psychological services and social work in the school system.

“ASIST is doing more of an intervention,” Pawley said. “safeTALK is more about awareness of the problem. We plan to offer safeTALK at all high schools throughout the year.”

Both boards use a team approach at schools to identify and keep tabs on at-risk students. If it’s determined the student needs more intensive help than the board can offer, community agencies and area hospitals become involved.

“We want to stop the stigmatization of mental illness and start talking about mental wellness,” said Alyssa Cusenza, a Grade 12 student at Vista.

“Everyone deals with it in some form. We want people to feel safe.”

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