Polar dip raising awareness and funds for suicide prevention

Photo: Debbie Pitel has organized a polar dip for this Saturday, with all proceeds going towards safeTALK seminars, a suicide prevention program that teaches people how to intervene when someone may be struggling. Petrolia Topic file photo.

Several community leaders, including Counc. Joel Field, will be taking the plunge this Saturday. A polar plunge, that is. 

The Polar Dip, organized by local business owner Debbie Pitel, will be raising funds to go towards safeTALK suicide prevention training in Sarnia Lambton.

Pitel lost her son Tyler in 2001, when he was just 15 years old. He was one of four students at LCCVI to take their own lives that year. She said that for ten years, she was just functioning day to day. With three other sons, they had a difficult task at hand of learning to move forward.

“As a family, it just stopped, everything we know as normal,” she said. “I was really just trying to get through the day and fill in the gaps as a parent.”

Pitel said that back then, there wasn’t really anywhere for them to turn to for resources. It was something that people tended to not talk about, and it was a subject avoided in conversation.

“It was very socially awkward. I really didn’t know how to come out of it,” she said. “As parents we struggled so hard trying to find answers, we knew something was wrong but it was private and personal.”

After coming out of a decade long fog, she realized she could change things and start to heal not just for herself, but for her other children as well.

Pitel has been holding fundraisers for several years now, starting small with events like charity barbecues. But soon she realized that they were attracting lots of people who wanted to talk about mental health, but never knew where to start.

Pitel’s son Tanner was studying at Laurier when he came across the safeTALK program. He was required to take the course in order to help mentor new students at the school.

When Tanner told his mother about the program, she realized it was something she could bring the community to help other families and individuals who may be suffering in silence. She has been raising funds since in order to give people in the county safeTALK training.

It teaches individuals the words to say when they suspect someone is struggling, and looking back 15 years, Pitel wonders if this program could have helped her.

“It teaches you how to communicate with a person as risk and how to follow through on the steps that best support them in that situation,” she said.

Pitel said it lets people get the help they need in a dignified and respectable way.

She said as a community, they need to work to make things better, they need to have these conversations and make sure people have the supports they need.

“The only thing we can do is do better, and try to make a difference because that’s exactly what he would have wanted us to do,” she said. “It’s a way of changing circumstances the only way I can.”

With money raised, they hold safeTALK workshops for anyone who wants to go. With funds always being used for the course, the polar dip idea came about and aims to raise over $3000. They hope to make it bigger and better than ever.

“I’m not the only one who is passionate about this,” Pitel said.

She picked her favourite local celebrities and advocates to take part in the polar dip, including Dr. John Butler, Dr. Lisa Thompson, Tim Garvie, Brian Clark and Joel Field. Pitel and some of her family will also be taking the polar dip.

Each have been challenged to collect $500 worth of pledges before the big dunk.

Counc. Joel Field said growing up, he was impacted, and he knows he’s not the only one.

Twenty-five years ago, Field’s friend attempted suicide, and while they survived, Field said he still thinks about what he said or didn’t say to that friend. He said he wants to raises awareness and get people talking through a fun event about a serious matter.

“There’s no family not impacted by this,” he said. “This programs trains people to look for those signs…25 years ago, people didn’t clue in.”

Pitel said that conversations are still tough 15 years later, and that society has a way to go yet. While people openly discuss cancer, there is still a stigma when it comes to mental health.

“This too is a disease,” she said. “Every day is a struggle and I don’t want anybody to know what this feels like, and sadly, a lot of people do.”

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