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Woodstock, Ont., in 'crisis' after string of youth suicides

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This file photo shows a sign at railway tracks in Woodstock, Ont., offering a toll-free number for the Canadian Mental Health Association's crisis line for those contemplating suicide. (HEATHER RIVERS/Woodstock Sentinel-Review/Postmedia Network Files)

This file photo shows a sign at railway tracks in Woodstock, Ont., offering a toll-free number for the Canadian Mental Health Association's crisis line for those contemplating suicide. (HEATHER RIVERS/Woodstock Sentinel-Review/Postmedia Network Files)

WOODSTOCK, Ont. -- The southwestern Ontario community of Woodstock, Ont., is facing a youth suicide crisis, with five young people taking their own lives in the past four months.

An estimated 20 others have attempted suicide, and there have been online rumours of a broader suicide pact.

Last year, not a single youth suicide was reported in Woodstock or the entire surrounding Oxford County.

Mental health professionals are baffled as to what's behind the disturbing surge.

On many First Nations communities, where suicide trends are unusually high, isolation and a lack of access to medical help is often blamed.

Woodstock is in the heart of the busy Highway 401 corridor in Ontario and there are dozens of mental health workers available in the area.

"For the people that are feeling unwell, there is a sense of hopelessness," Mike McMahon, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association branch in Oxford, said. He called it a "crisis."

"Our youth, for a reason that hasn't been properly explored, are looking at suicide as a viable alternative to the pain and sadness that they're feeling."

And as the numbers of suicides rise, so too does the anxiety's of the entire community -- including those who've considered taking their own lives.

"When our community hears about a youth dying by suicide, our crisis level goes up for everybody we serve because this is something that affects everybody," McMahon said.

Some of Woodstock's young people say they've been shut out by the process so far, complaining they've not been consulted in the crisis.

Mackenzie Gall, a 16-year-old at Huron Park Secondary School, has organized a walkout for Tuesday.

"I'm really just looking to raise awareness of the fact that we need help, as students," she said. "I feel like they're more focused on adults rather than the teenagers' opinions."

McMahon said mental health professionals are doing what they can to make sure teens talk to each other -- something he hopes will help in preventing suicides and assist teens dealing with related mental health issues.

"We have to get at the sadness, and the hope ahead. We have to begin to train youth to have conversations about how they're feeling with each other," he said. "Some will say that having youth talk about suicide with other youth causes an increase in suicide. There's no way for me to explain the degree to which that is false."

Gail Bradfield-Evraire, a mother from Sweaburg, just outside Woodstock, started a Facebook page to give youth an outlet to discuss their feelings, as well as plan for further programs and outreach.

Her page, Youth Suicide Prevention in Woodstock, amassed more than 3,000 members in 24 hours. "These kids talk about their friends. It's healing for them," she said.

- With files from Megan Stacey