Warning: This story contains content that may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.
The Mental Health & Addictions Provincial Crisis Line can be reached at 1-888-429-8167. More resources are listed below.
Three years after her daughter lost her battle with her mental health struggles, Kelly Mitchell is still coming to terms with her grief – but she finds solace in helping other young people who are struggling.
Mitchell is the founder of Aidaen’s Place in Yarmouth, N.S. It’s a youth wellness centre where young people can hang out, learn life skills, take creativity workshops and get support when they need it.
The centre is named after Mitchell’s daughter, Aidaen, who was 14 years old when she died by suicide in February 2019.
“It’s been three years, and this is the first time that I can say that I’m finally back above ground. It’s taken a lot,” said Mitchell in a recent interview.
“The youth centre has been an amazing help for that, because I’ve seen other youth struggle and make it through.”
Since 2019, the centre has grown substantially – starting out as a wellness room in another facility before quickly outgrowing the space and moving to its own house on Yarmouth’s Main Street.
Programming includes “big talk” events – where youth talk about their lives and get support – as well as history nights, guitar lessons, positivity and self-care programming, and daily hot meals.
The building is painted a bright, vibrant purple – Aidaen’s favourite colour.
But Aidaen’s Place is just one piece of the puzzle. Mitchell is growing increasingly concerned about the “alarming” number of suicide deaths among young people in recent years in the Yarmouth area.
“We just keep growing and growing, and the need is growing, and I don’t see any end to that,” said Mitchell.
New report shows suicides in Nova Scotia rose in 2021
Since 2016, at least seven teenagers between the ages of 12 and 14 lost their lives to suicide in the area, Mitchell said – and those are just the ones she knows of.
That’s a lot for a small, tight-knit community like Yarmouth, located on the southwestern tip of Nova Scotia. The municipality has a population of around 10,000, about 7,000 of whom live in the town itself.
Most of the teens who died attended the same schools, had the same friends and grew up in the same communities, Mitchell said.
“We’re a small town and these hits we’re taking … we don’t understand how this has happened,” she said. “So it’s time we start talking about it.”
‘I don’t want any parent to have to go through this’
Mitchell remembers her daughter as an “incredible” person. She and her husband, Scott, adopted Aidaen when she was seven days old, and from a young age, they “knew that there was something special” about her.
“We could notice she was extremely empathic, cared about others well above herself,” Mitchell said. “Everybody else’s well-being was the most important thing to her. Always put herself last.”
Aidaen had many interests. She was “incredibly into sports,” said Mitchell, playing soccer and basketball, and was also a member of her school’s cheer team.
However, she began to struggle with her mental health in her pre-teen years and made multiple suicide attempts before she died in February 2019.
Before her death, Aidaen went to private therapy and later underwent dialectical behavioural therapy at a local hospital. However, her therapist ended up leaving their position and Aidaen, not wanting to start over with another therapist, refused to see anyone after that.
“Within two months, she was gone,” said Mitchell.
Part of the issue, she said, was that she didn’t have access to Aidaen’s medical information and didn’t know how she was responding to therapy, or what kind of things she could do at home to help her.
“We thought she was improving. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case,” said Mitchell. “We weren’t really dealing with the full deck of cards because we didn’t have all of our cards out on the table.”
Losing her daughter was the most difficult thing she’s ever experienced, Mitchell said.
“That’s why I fight every day for these youth,” she said. “I don’t want any parent to have to go through this. And that’s why Aidaen’s place is here.”
‘We’ve got to do something about this’
The Mitchells aren’t the only parents channeling their grief into action.
Sharon and Peter Stewart, who lost their 18-year-old daughter Jocelyn to suicide in 2018, are working toward a project that could help other young people who are struggling.
According to the Stewarts, Jocelyn was a unique, kind-hearted individual who hated cruelty and adored animals, especially dogs.
“She loved animals as well as people,” said Peter. “She seemed to love animals more than she loved people sometimes.”
Jocelyn was very close with her dog, Amani, a rescue from Texas. Amani means “peace” in the Swahili language – a fitting name for a dog that brought her much-needed comfort.
“She loved her dog. And she felt very secure when he was around,” Peter said.
Jocelyn first started showing signs of depression when she was 12. She began seeing a child psychologist for a two-hour appointment once a week, but her appointments were in Coldbrook, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Yarmouth.
“She couldn’t take her dog with her, which was hard. So it ended up being a stretch of a seven-hour trip,” said Sharon. “That’s a long way to go when you’re seeking help.”
After her 18th birthday, Jocelyn was no longer eligible for those appointments because she was considered an adult. That’s when she “fell through the cracks,” said Peter.
Jocelyn turned 18 on Aug. 6, 2018. She died less than three weeks later.
“We had her for 18 years, which we are thankful for,” said Peter. “But of course, we’re sad that she’s gone.”
Soon after her death, the Stewarts knew they had to do something.
“The morning after, Sharon and I were sitting at the breakfast table, where we weren’t really hungry, but we were just kind of sitting there,” said Peter.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘We’ve got to do something about this,’ because there’s been so many young people lost to suicide prior to Jocelyn and since.
“Every time we hear of another one, it just breaks our hearts.”
They said one issue is many of the resources for mental health in Nova Scotia are focused in the Halifax area, and not so much in smaller communities like Yarmouth.
The Stewarts have since started the Jocelyn Stewart Foundation, with the goal of eventually opening a supportive living environment for people with suicidal ideation.
Peter said their vision is to have a home-like environment, staffed 24/7 with support staff, with therapists and counsellors available for programming.
He said it’s an ambitious project, but one that’s needed – and something Jocelyn wanted for herself during her short life.
“She’d come down … from her bedroom, she’d be in tears. And then she said, ‘Just send me away, take me somewhere where I can be safe and won’t hurt myself,’” said Peter.
“And so that fueled the idea of a place where individuals could go to get the help they need so they would feel safe.”
The Stewarts have applied for charitable status and are waiting to hear back. Until then, funding will be hard to come by, they said, though they have received some donations and sponsorships.
“Whatever it takes,” said Peter. “We’ve got to get this done, because this is a necessity.”
Funding is also a challenge for Aidaen’s Place. Mitchell said she’s received some funding through grants and sponsors, but that just supports programming, not operational costs like wages.
“I fundraise to keep two people employed – not me, them – because I can’t go without them,” said Mitchell.
“So on top of that, I have to work 30 to 40 hours a week (elsewhere) to make ends meet on my end. So I’m pulling 80 hours a week and getting burned out.
“I could be using that time so much more wisely for programming and resources … but I won’t be able to do that as long as I’m sitting here fundraising just to make everything happen.”
Mitchell is working with a program that matches organizations with private donors, and has sent out more than 200 letters so far with the hopes of raising $100,000 for wage funding by the end of the year.
A ‘heartbreaking public health issue’
It indicates the Western Zone of the province – which includes the counties of Yarmouth, Digby, Lunenburg, Shelburne, Annapolis, Queens and Kings – has an especially high rate of suicide.
While the Western Zone makes up about 20 per cent of Nova Scotia’s population, last year it represented more than a quarter of the province’s suicide deaths.
Of the 142 suicide deaths across the province in 2021, 38 were in the Western Zone. That region had a suicide rate of 18.9 per 100,000 population, which was the highest rate of suicide out of all four zones in 2021.
And during the six-year period between 2016 and 2021, the Western Zone had the highest rate of suicide for four of those years. It also tied with the Eastern Zone for the highest rate of suicide in 2017.
In a statement, provincial spokesperson Peter McLaughlin said between 2009 and 2021, the number of suicide deaths among those younger than 20 years old ranged between five and 10 each year.
He said there has been “no notable increase” in suicide deaths among people in that age group so far in 2022 compared to previous years, and the rate of suicide for young people in that age group in the Western Zone is similar to the provincial rate in the last decade.
Due to privacy reasons, further information about youth suicide statistics is not available, he said. There are also no further details about geographical regions, like Yarmouth specifically.
“Nova Scotia suicide indicators are reported in a way that balances privacy with meaningful public health information on a heartbreaking public health issue,” said McLaughlin.
‘Significant need’ for more resources
Brenda Martin-Hurlburt, a nationally-certified peer support specialist based in Yarmouth, was the one who encouraged the Mitchells and the Stewarts to start their organizations, recognizing there was a lack of resources in the area for youth.
In an interview, Martin-Hurlburt said she was working in Halifax for a while but returned back home after seeing a “significant need” in her community.
At the time, the Yarmouth area was reeling from a devastating tragedy: a house fire in Pubnico that claimed the lives of four young children in January 2018. Over an eight-month period, she supported nearly 150 people who were affected by that tragedy.
Then, in November that same year, tragedy struck again when a four-year-old girl was killed in an accident at the town’s annual Christmas parade. More than 70 people came to Martin-Hurlburt for support afterward, she said.
“I always knew our community had a need, and I always knew there was something more (that was needed), because we didn’t have the supports and resources at the hospital that was necessary to manage people in the community,” she said.
Peer supporters are people with lived experience who are trained to offer emotional and practical support.
They are not clinical therapists, but can supplement the mental health-care system by offering people someone to talk to, which can help free up other mental health resources for more serious and chronic cases.
“You don’t have to be a trained psychologist or psychiatrist to sit with somebody and listen,” said Martin-Hurlburt. “And most times, that’s what people need: get them through that moment, until we can see you on a clinical level.”
In its Mental Health Strategy, released in 2012, the Mental Health Commission of Canada called for peer support to be recognized “as an essential component of mental health services.”
“Peer support for people living with mental health problems and illnesses can help to reduce hospitalization and symptoms, offer social support, and improve quality of life,” it said.
“Despite its effectiveness, peer support gets very limited funding.”
Martin-Hurlburt agreed. Before COVID-19 hit, she opened a volunteer-based crisis centre in Yarmouth where peer support was being offered, but eventually it had to close due to a lack of funding.
She said she applied for $1.5 million worth in grants and funding sources, “and we never got five cents.” During the brief time the centre was open, it was largely due to sponsorships from local businesses.
More peer support resources in Nova Scotia would be a “game-changer,” she said, but it hasn’t gotten much attention from the province.
“It would have been nice to see our system move that way, but it didn’t,” said Martin-Hurlburt.
‘We need to come to bat for our youth’
In a statement, Khalehla Perrault, spokesperson for the Department of Health and Wellness and the Office of Addictions and Mental Health, said “every death by suicide is a tragic loss.”
“The Office of Addictions and Mental Health is committed to ensuring access to mental health services are readily available to all Nova Scotians and it is crucial that we do everything we can to support Nova Scotians when they are struggling,” she said.
There is more information about the province’s work to prevent and reduce the risk of suicide on its website, she noted.
Perrault also said that on Dec. 9, Brian Comer, Minister of the Office of Addictions and Mental Health, as well as office chief Dr. Samuel Hickcox, will visit the Yarmouth and Digby area to meet with clinicians and local community-based organizations “to discuss mental health and addictions issues that youth face in the Yarmouth area.”
The visit will include a meeting with Shyft House and Aidaen’s Place, she said.
Meanwhile, both Mitchell and the Stewarts say something needs to be done as soon as possible.
“We need to come to bat for our youth. They’re struggling. The resources aren’t there,” said Mitchell. “We can’t lose another youth. This is way too much. After the first one was too much.”
Anyone experiencing a mental health crisis is encouraged to use the following resources:
- Mental Health & Addictions Provincial Crisis Line: 1-888-429-8167
- Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (toll-free) Available 24/7 or Text CONNECT 686868
- Emergency: 911
- Website for Nova Scotia Mental Health & Addictions
- Communities Addressing Suicide Together (CAST) resource hub