I had just been part of something remarkable, powerful and even life changing. It was three months ago that, in absolute frustration with the number of youth suicides, I spouted out on Facebook that I was going to have a youth suicide prevention conference. The increase of suicide rates in the young First Nations population was starting to even get the media’s attention. It was brought to the forefront of the public’s mind when six young girls committed suicide in Northern Saskatchewan. One of the girls was only 10 years old. This wasn’t an anomaly; this was going on in other First Nations communities across Saskatchewan. I knew this because it was happening in the ones I was working as a director for. I felt I needed to do something more than what I was doing in my day job.
Fortunately, before I could retract my post (after wondering if I bit off more than I can chew) two of my friends, Sara Wheelright and Leanne Mazza, immediately jumped on board. We all shared a great passion for community involvement and social change so we had the commitment and drive, however it was our diverse skill sets that made us the perfect trio to take a project like this. We named it the Ignite the Life Youth Suicide Prevention Rally.
We had more than enough motivation, energy and ideas to organize a youth conference but what was needed were concrete goals in order to clearly visualize, effectively plan and successfully execute a suicide prevention conference. We sat with our pens and paper- or in Sara’s case with her laptop- asking each other: how can we create change? How can we empower the disempowered? Most importantly, how can we prevent kids from taking their lives? These questions can be overwhelming making it difficult to know even where to start. The issue of suicide is a complicated and layered one. We knew the conference would never be able to provide all the answers or solutions but that didn’t negate the necessity or validity of it. We knew exactly what we COULD do and why it mattered and we started from there.
The goals of the youth suicide prevention conference were to target First Nations youth from all over Saskatchewan (specifically from remote Northern regions), gather their stories, provide networking opportunities for them and let them know they are not alone in this. We wanted to surround the youth with First Nations culture as belonging and identity are crucial for self-esteem and pride. We also had to secure enough sponsorships in order to offer this to youth for free. If you want something like this to be great you have to ignore people’s titles, pedigrees and political agendas and demonstrate an environment of equality, belonging and compassion. The recognition had to be given to the children for being there. With 500 youth attending we wanted to gather valuable information on what they were struggling with every day in their communities. This may be possibly be something that was never done before in our province.
The first day of the conference the energy was authentic, supportive and raw, allowing the youth to be courageous and honest in their stories. Seeing the bravery in the youth, the adults stepped up disclosing their vulnerable moments and encouraging the youth to stay strong. The message that was stated over and over to the youth was “ask us for help we want to help you”. They needed to hear that. They also needed permission to talk about suicide and the family members they lost to it.
The last day and final hour of the conference we had the youth sign a Life Pact. This was to counteract the suicide pacts that many impulsively join in order to feel a sense of belonging. The Life Pact is a contract that had to be signed by a witness promising they will reach out for help before hurting themselves. It was an emotional moment to have over 300 youth sign their Life Pacts. The youth took their Life Pacts home and they are to show them to others to ensure the people around them support them in keeping that promise.
Change can happen because people want to make it happen. Isn’t that what we keep hearing? I know this two-day conference isn’t going to completely make all the bad things disappear from these children’s lives. Many will be returning to bullying, poverty, addiction, family/domestic violence and overcrowding in their homes. However, talking to each other and hearing each other’s stories they will no longer feel they are alone in this. The daily battle is one many are also facing every day, but the greatest message that the youth heard was “now is not forever”.
With the conference over and everyone returning to their communities I am still thinking about all those kids and wondering if we saved any lives. I will never forget the longing I felt to want to make it all better for them. The only thing I can hope is that this ripple will gain momentum some way somehow until we see the number of youth suicides diminish. Anyone can support a youth and all it starts with is: “are you ok?” Two ears have the potential to save a life more than any youth suicide prevention conference. Let’s all be someone’s light.