|Raychael Fisher, 18, has come a long way since she stopped cutting herself a year ago. The vibrant young teen is just starting to get her life back on track. (Tara Jeffrey, QMI Agency)
SARNIA, Ont. - It gets better.
That's what Raychael Fisher tells herself every day.
It's been more than a year since she stopped cutting herself, and now she's ready to tell her survivor's story.
"It's not normal to feel like you don't want to be here," says the 18-year-old Sarnia, Ont., woman, who has been battling depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts for most of her adolescent life.
"I honestly didn't think I'd make it to this age. But I've been dealing with this for so long now, and I guess I've learned how to cope with my life."
Others haven't been so fortunate.
Teen suicide has been thrust into the spotlight in recent weeks following a rash of deaths across North America.
Last month, homophobia and bullying were cited in the highly publicized suicide of a New Jersey teen taunted on a social networking site.
In Orangeville, Ont., earlier this month the bodies of two young women were discovered in a wooded area, after an apparent double-suicide.
And in Fisher's own community at least five people aged 14 to 22 have taken their own lives in the past seven months.
"We really need to look at what's changed in our society," says Fisher. "Because, with the amount of kids that are just taking their own lives something needs to be done. Something is wrong here."
Someone in the world commits suicide every 40 seconds, according to the World Health Organization.
In Canada, suicide is the second leading cause of death in the 10 to 24 age group.
The aboriginal youth suicide rate is four to six times that of non-natives.
In Ontario, there are about 1,000 suicides every year, though the real number is likely much higher, according to the Ontario Association for Suicide Prevention.
For Fisher, the downward spiral into depression began around age 12 and worsened when she hit high school.
"I just didn't feel like a person -- I don't know how to explain it," says Fisher. "I was just so confused. That's when I started to cut and stuff.
"No one knew I was going through this."
In school, she was teased and bullied for being different from her peers.
"You get picked on, and some kids just don't know how to handle that. It started to get to the point that I wanted to end my life."
One night, Fisher was bleeding so badly she had to be hospitalized.
She told her mother what she'd been doing.
"I kind of always knew I needed help. But I wasn't completely honest with myself until then," Fisher says. "I realized, 'Hey, this is something I need to get checked out.'"
Gavin Snelgrove never showed any signs of depression.
The young man from rural southwestern Ontario was the life of the party -- a popular 22-year-old, always on the go, surrounded by friends and family.
"Gavin was a kid who loved life," recalls his mother, Jennifer Snelgrove. "He was one of a kind. Always a prankster. I never, in a million years, would think he'd have done something like this."
In March, what was supposed to be a relaxing vacation in Cuba instead turned into a nightmare when Gavin abruptly took his own life.
"You have a lot of 'whys' after, but you're never going to know," says Snelgrove, social worker.
Gavin had been struggling to cope with the death of his older brother BJ, who was murdered nine years ago.
"BJ was his idol," says Snelgrove. "I guess he just never really got over that."
Now Snelgrove says she worries about Gavin's close friends, and the after-effects of his suicide.
Some have turned to drugs and alcohol.
"A lot of them are really struggling. For some, there seems to be no hope," she says.
Snelgrove is shocked by the number of recent suicides in the area.
"This last year has been nuts -- It's a pandemic in this community.
"The only thing I can say to parents going through this is, you better put your anchor in the ground and hold on tight, because you're in for one hell of a storm of emotions."
Raychael Fisher was eventually diagnosed with major depressive disorder.
"People need to start recognizing mental illness as a disease, just as you would diabetes or cancer," she says, adding that the stigma of mental disease too often prevents troubled teens from seeking help.
"You feel embarrassed about it, and I think a lot of kids feel this way."
Fisher says she's had trouble getting help, and hasn't been able to receive counselling since she left high school.
"I wish there was more out there; it's so hard to get in. The wait lists are huge."
One in five children and youth meet the criteria for a mental health diagnosis, says Rick Shields, executive director at St. Clair Child and Youth Services, in Sarnia, Ont.
"And the sad truth is, the majority of kids go untreated," he says, noting lengthy wait lists and massive service cuts over the years.
"Children and youth mental health services needs to be mandated under law."
People with mood disorders are at a particularly high risk of suicide, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.
More than 90% of suicide victims have a diagnosable psychiatric illness.
The average wait time for youth mental health services in Ontario is five months.
"The last time I looked, we had 228 kids on waiting lists, and more and more of them have complex needs," says Shields, noting a 30% jump in referrals over the past two years. "That gets worrisome."
Organizations across the province have responded by streamlining services to maximize response, Shields says.
"So now, kids get rationed service, not necessarily the service they need."
The costs of treating an Ontario child with a mental illness, about $2,500, is equivalent to the cost of one day in a detention centre, says Peter Smith, a children's mental health advocate.
"If you look at the impact of not treating children, it's huge. It follows them into adulthood, and the impact on the education system, the legal system -- the costs to society are just huge."
Meanwhile, front line workers at agencies have reached their limit, officials say.
"At Rebound, we've done everything we can possible think of," executive director Mary Ellen Warren says.
The national award-winning agency, which works with at-risk youth in Sarnia to keep them on track at school and out of court, has a ratio of 50 kids per staff member.
"We're watching kids deteriorate now," she says. "We can see it."
The daily pressures of being a teenager can be too much for some youth to handle, says Raychael Fisher.
"Society has drastically changed. There is so much pressure on us, and it's not just school and home, it's everything --the media, work, friends. Sometimes, it gets so overwhelming that you just don't want to deal with it anymore."
In the wake of the deaths in Sarnia, hundreds of residents have packed community halls for information and awareness sessions on teen suicide.
At one high school, an emergency parent meeting was held last month following two suicide deaths just days apart.
Meanwhile, students continue to struggle with the sudden loss of their friends and classmates.
"The kids all know each other," says Sharon Berry Ross, a local youth councillor. "This hasn't been a ripple effect. It's been more like a tsunami."
For the past year, Fisher, has been on medication for depression and is beginning to get her life back on track.
She stopped cutting, and, in June, graduated from high school.
Now, she's trying to look at the positives, and hopes to help others who are suffering.
"I've learned to get myself stoked on things that I like in life, like music and art," she says. "You have to find things in life that keep you happy and make you who you are."
* Talking about suicide or a plan for suicide
* Making statements about hopelessness, helplessness or worthlessness
* Complaining of being a bad person, nor accepting praise or worthlessness
* Giving away possessions
* Preoccupied with death
* Loss of interest in things once cared about
* Always feeling bored
* Personality changes
* Withdrawing from friends and family
* Trouble concentrating
* Changes in eating and sleeping habits
* Showing impulsive behaviours, such as violent actions or rebellious behaviour
* Becoming suddenly cheerful after a period of depression (may mean the youth has already made the decision to escape their problems through suicide).
For more information:
Kids Help Phone
Centre for Suicide Prevention
Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention
Ontario Association for Suicide Prevention
Mental Health Service Information Ontario
Mental Health Works:
Source: Sarnia-Lambton Suicide Prevention Committee