Canada

The suicide watch

Three deaths leave experts groping for answers

JOHN GEDDES April 20 1998
Canada

The suicide watch

Three deaths leave experts groping for answers

JOHN GEDDES April 20 1998

The suicide watch

Three deaths leave experts groping for answers

JOHN GEDDES

It is the darkest thought to cross the mind of a parent worried about a troubled teenager: suicide. In North Bay, Ont., three deaths in less than six months turned this usually unspoken fear into a matter of heated public debate. Last October, a 16-year-old girl died when she was hit by a train in what police say might have been an accident, but could also have been a suicide. Less than two months later, another girl, a friend of the first, hanged herself. Shock quickly turned to speculation that several high-school students might have entered into some sort of grisly pact. Then, last month, a third death seemed to lend credibility to that chilling rumor: a close friend of the second girl to die also killed herself by hanging. Those left behind cannot be sure the chain of loss has ended. “I worry about my friends every day,” says Pam Tremblay, 17, who knew all three of the dead girls well. “I don’t really know who’s feeling whafi but I don’t think anyone is stupid enough to make us go through it again.”

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That blunt assessment is what passes for optimism among the young people most directly touched by the suicides. Tremblay is one of perhaps a dozen girls, most of them students at Widdifield Secondary School, who were close to the three who died. They angrily dismiss any suggestion that a suicide pact existed and also insist that the first death was accidental. A few members of the tight-knit group have rejected pleas to accept counselling, preferring to lean on each other for support. And as the adolescents close ranks, social workers and child psychologists are left groping for answers and wondering if they have done enough. Some are troubled by guilt over the possibility that they might have intervened to prevent the second and third deaths. “Everybody asks, What did I do wrong?’ ” says Jean Paul Laroche, director of North Bay’s Nipissing Children’s Mental Health Services agency. “It’s a natural question, even if nobody did anything wrong. This is stressful, frightening work.” Anxiety has gripped parents as well as professionals in the city of 55,000 on the

shore of Lake Nipissing, 300 km north of Toronto. After the first death, several worried mothers of teenagers who had known the girl began meeting regularly to talk about their kids. Their living-room chats have taken on a new intensity after the second and third deaths. Grieving daughters sometimes congregate along with troubled

mothers—and experts say they are doing the right thing. “When suicides happen in schools, parents should be sitting down and talking with their own kids immediately,” stresses Gerry Harrington, executive director of the Calgary-based Suicide Information and Education Centre.

Still, heart-to-heart sessions are not the whole answer. Increasingly, school boards are adopting formal policies to prevent suicide, and developing strategies for reacting when one occurs. In North Bay, education

and social agencies are in the process of cowriting a “protocol”—a guidebook of sorts for how to predict and prevent youth suicides, and how to counsel young people coping with the death of a peer. The statistical case for such planning is persuasive. While clusters of suicides like those that stunned North Bay are rare, suicide ranks second as a killer of young people in Canada—after accidental deaths including car crashes—and appears to be rising. The rate of suicide among children and teens was consistently well below that of adults until the early 1990s, when it began climbing to near the adult rate. By 1995, the latest figures available, 13 out of every 100,000 Canadians between 15 and 19 years old committed suicide, up from fewer than 10 suicides in 100,000 two decades earlier. Over the same period, the suicide rate for Canadians 20 to 24 actually fell from 18 in 100,000 to just under 17.

Experts say preventing the deaths behind those numbers means finding ways to persuade young people—many of them often intensely private—to open up to adults offering help. “Teenagers tend to talk to each other before they talk to adults,” says Ester Cole, a Toronto psychologist whose work includes suicide prevention among children and adolescents. She urges high schools to teach students, as part of wider suicide-prevention training, not to feel bound to keep information about a depressed friend secret. Yet the mystique of tight-lipped loyalty among the young is strong. Laroche suspects that in North Bay even some adults were touched by the notion of troubled kids trying to take care of each other. Not him. “A 15-year-old taking responsibility for keeping somebody else alive?” Laroche says. “Come on.”

Parents looking to governments for more expert help on the problem of suicide may have grounds for hope. Harrington said Health Canada has asked his centre to | start work on a possible federal sui£ cide-prevention strategy, one that would eventually need provincial co-operation. But that work is in its earliest stages. And it seems distant from the immediate preoccupations of Pam Tremblay and her friends. “Everyone got stuck on the suicide-pact idea,” she says, “more than they worried about how we felt.” But she is quick to back away from any hint of asking for understanding or help from the realm of adults. “People are so cruel,” she adds, glancing around at a solemn-faced group of her friends. ‘We take care of each other.”

JOHN GEDDES in North Bay