“It’s time for us to make a difference”

Woodstock high school students arrive at mental health rally at Museum Square, June 7, 2016. (Photo by Miranda Chant, Blackburn News)

Woodstock students, frustrated their voices aren’t being heard amidst a teen suicide crisis, had the ear of the nation on Tuesday.

As the clock struck 9am, hundreds of students from the city’s five high schools walked out of class and marched to Museum Square. There, they shared stories of bullying and depression and the need for additional mental health services in Oxford County. Messages of support were also scrawled along the sidewalk with chalk.

Since February, five teenagers in Woodstock have committed suicide and nearly 20 others have attempted it.

“When I heard about the suicides it made me realize that there are a lot of people out there needing help but not knowing how to get it,” says Tai Hope, Grade 11 student at Woodstock Collegiate Institute. “It’s time for change. It’s time for us to make a difference, not just as students but as a community . It’s time for us to come together as one and show people that we do care.”

Hope told the crowd of students, parents and community members “we have gathered here to not only mourn the students who have lost their lives to suicide but to try to make a difference in our schools and hopefully our community as well.”

Rally organizer Mackenzie Gall, 16, wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming turnout and large media presence.

“It’s more than what I expected,” says Gall. “Coming in here I started bawling my eyes out. It was amazing having so many people show up.”

Gall says she was bullied physically, verbally , mentally, and over social media throughout elementary school.

“It made me feel sick to my stomach having someone who was constantly , everyday at me,” says Gall. “Someone who was in my class everyday on me, making me feel awful about myself.”

Gall is calling on school boards and politicians to make mental health support more readily available.

“More crisis councillors in the schools and crash beds at our hospitals. We don’t have any of those. As someone said in their speech, they were taken to London hospital where there is no communication with family and you’re certainly not getting your education when you’re in a hospital 24/7. So the crash beds at the hospital would be amazing,” says Gall.

Ron Bailey lost his 16-year-old daughter Mandy to suicide earlier this year.

“It’s amazing what these students are doing,” says Bailey. “I’m very proud of them. I’m very proud of what they are trying to accomplish and the establishment needs to listen to them.”

Bailey says he is not normally a big fan of walkouts but this one was absolutely vital to get the public to listen to the community’s youth.

“I’m hoping real change is on the way. It has started but there is a long way to go. We need to get our kids to go from being hopeless to survival to hopeful,” says Bailey. “It’s a very tightknit community here. Everybody knows everybody and everybody has been effected by the suicides and the attempted suicides. People are expressing concerns here. They are saying ‘we need help, we need services here in Woodstock.’ Not having to ship them out to London to get those services. That’s the messages these students are trying to convey.”

After personal stories of survival, songs, and poems were shared Woodstock Mayor Trevor Birtch addressed the crowd. He told them council recognizes the severity of the mental health crisis.

“I need your help, council needs your help, the school boards need your help. Let us know where we can share information about all the different supports and counselling,” he told the crowd. “There is a lot of people who care that can speak hope, love, and life and help you to follow your dreams. Let us know how we can reach you, how we can effectively communicate with you. We are in this together.”

The Canadian Mental Health Association Oxford was also on hand for the rally. Representatives set-up a tent and encouraged anyone needing to talk to see them.

Gall promised this rally is only the beginning for Woodstock students. They plan to host similar events in the future.