School district supports new prevention program

Initiative aims to educate students about mental health and suicide

A new initiative this fall is focused on raising awareness about mental health and youth suicide in the Hope and Agassiz/Harrison areas.

According to the BC Coroners Service, suicide is the second leading cause of death in B.C. youth between the ages of 15 and 18, preceded only by accidental motor vehicle incidents. Expanding the age group to include all child and youth suicides for 10 to 18 year olds between 2008 and 2012, the suicide rate was 3.43 per 100,000. Looking over a 22-year period between 1990 and 2012, there’s been an average of 19 deaths by suicide each year in children and youth aged 10 to 18.

Locally, the population health profiles for Agassiz/Harrison and Hope paint a bleak picture.

The suicide rates between 2004-2008 were higher in these rural communities than the average in the Fraser Health region. The Fraser Health suicide rate per 10,000 people was 0.81, while the rate in Agassiz/Harrison was 1.58 and in Hope 2.43.

“This, along with the fact the Fraser region itself has higher rates than the majority of the province, is pretty concerning,” said Meghan Chatwin, one of three doctors with the UBC family medicine residency program who is leading the new local initiative for a research project. “In addition, suicide actually appears as one of the leading causes of death in Agassiz/Harrison. Most communities only report the top 10 causes and these are all usually deaths related to extremely common diseases of aging such as heart disease, stroke and cancer. So the fact that suicide is ninth on the list in Agassiz/Harrison is also very concerning.”

Chatwin pointed out that 90 per cent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental illness, however only 20-25 per cent of people, including youth suffering from mental illness, get help. She attributes this to the stigma and misunderstanding around mental health and a general lack of knowledge about the warning signs of suicide.

“Looking back at many deaths people recognize that warning signs were present and so educating the public about this is important,” she added.

The doctors conducted a youth suicide community readiness assessment in Agassiz/Harrison earlier this year to evaluate the area’s needs when it comes to developing and implementing prevention programming. While there are already community resources in place, the results found the areas of weakness related to the community’s attitude and general knowledge of mental health and suicide.

“There seems to be some denial of the issue and resistance of talking about it,” said Chatwin. “Even though we just looked specifically at Agassiz/Harrison, the issues don’t stop there. Hope has a similar population with similar challenges.”

The doctors feel there’s an opportunity to develop a comprehensive approach and work with different community groups to raise awareness about mental health and suicide, whether it be through parent education nights or community presentations. They’ve also garnered support from high schools in the Fraser-Cascade district to address students.

“It’s been found that especially in teenagers, they’re much more likely to approach a friend than an adult with problems,” said Chatwin. “So you can train all the adults you want in the school, but if the students don’t seek help from them, you’re still at square one. You have to provide students with the education and ability to respond.”

Dr. Karen Nelson, superintendent of schools in the Fraser-Cascade, said there’s been a positive response to the initiative from high schools in the district. In fact, the doctors will be presenting to Grade 8 students at Agassiz Elementary-Secondary School in November, as well as at the District Parent Advisory Council meeting on Nov. 6 and Fraser-Cascade Education Committee meeting on Nov. 12.

“We’ve endorsed this program and I think it’s wonderful for our students,” said Nelson, adding that it’s a helpful tool that will go along with the Circle of Courage program currently running in Boston Bar.

The long-term goal is to implement a district-wide suicide prevention program modeled after a successful pilot project in Manitoba that focuses on peer education and response training through DVDs and discussion guides. It also offers gatekeeper training for adults within the school to help them recognize warning signs of suicide.

“It’s shown to reduce suicide attempts as well as increase the number of people being diagnosed and receiving help for mental illness,” said Chatwin.

“The more people who are aware and can respond appropriately, the better.”

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