Councillor asks for mental health dialogue in wake of North Stormont suicide

North Stormont Councillor Randy Douglas. File photo, Nation Valley News

BERWICK — In the wake of a young man’s suicide in Avonmore, North Stormont Councillor Randy Douglas pressed for dialogue around mental health and social media at the council table last night, Dec. 8.

The full transcript of supplied comments from the councillor — who also called for the “safe re-launch” of the township’s community groups in the New Year —  appears below.

Thank you Mayor Wert, tonight I raise a subject far outside my usual range of discussion matters and it’s about mental health.

On November 9th, North Stormont resident Andreas Haller took his own life after a long battle with mental health issues that caused all kinds of challenges for himself and his loved ones the past few years. He was 24 years old. He and his fiancée, Caroline, had just taken possession of a home in Avonmore that they were excited to prepare to move into.

This is not a claim to know Andreas or his family very well, nor to claim any knowledge of the world of mental illness or specific information about Andreas.

However, Andreas was two months younger and 14 months older than my two sons. He attended school with each of my sons at different points of his elementary and secondary years. It hits home because you know of the other families in your own kids peer group and you relate to the stages of life these kids are going through as years go by.

After hearing of Andreas’ passing, thoughts of wanting to do something about came to mind almost right away. And there are 3 items I want to raise this evening. The common theme is “Dialogue.”

The first is to ask whether our residents know where they can go when they are in mental health crisis and to ask the province whether there are enough resources available in SD&G right now? We are told of the Cornwall Hospital Community Addiction and Mental Health Centre and Youth Wellness Hubs for those aged between 12 and 25. I’m asking Council and the CEO if we should have a future delegation bring us more information. We thank all those in the mental health field who are working so hard to take care of the vulnerable.

Again, it’s important to not point fingers, single anyone out or imply knowledge of a complex topic but while sitting around the Haller kitchen table we had a very emotional yet, informative and constructive discussion about Andreas and at one point a family member who had not said much up until that point said, “Andreas had visited the mental health centre several times in the final days and I just wished they had admitted him.”

2020 has been a year where most if not all of us have been tested at some point and mental health services are more important now as they have ever been. We know that COVID-19 has stressed all government services including health care and that resources have been reallocated away from their stated intent. Recently for example, we’re told that one-third of psychiatric beds right now are being occupied by those with dementia, a subset of mental illness. There are so many demands and so a limited number of professionals and services but we can ask the province if this part of eastern Ontario is getting its fair shares.

Mayor Wert, let’s get some more information and discussion going here.

The second point for discussion to initiate tonight is social media, and how it affects our mental health. Unfortunately, Andreas was involved in a vehicle mishap a few days before his passing.

An animal ultimately perished and the incident was widely shared on social media. The OPP facebook page had apparently had almost 200 comments about the incident. Media outlets posted the story as well, and of course readers shared it into their Facebook and social media personal networks.

The Ontario Provincial Police is a highly venerable and revered organization with highly dedicated professionals doing difficult work during very difficult times. What I want to ask tonight is what exactly is the benefit to society for the OPP Facebook page to be a bulletin board
or peanut gallery for people to make comments about incidents like this? The term peanut gallery can describe a rowdy group of critics or hecklers who give unsolicited, uninformed and unhelpful advice.

I did reach out to the OPP for comment and had a brief constructive discussion with the media information officer but the subject is complex and much more time is needed for a full discussion. Can we not just report the incident and leave the comments out of it?

These comments were innocent enough and from research and conversations with Andreas’ peers and family, the gist of the comments were not negative. However, we have to point out that we do not know just how vulnerable someone involved in an incident like this might be and that Andreas suddenly was ashamed to show his face in the village. Andreas was vulnerable and sensitive to the explosion of interest in this event. He may not have been mentioned by name, but was feeling the weight of these comments. Sometimes we’re just not able to turn away. The end result in this case was devastating.

I would like to thank the input from several other young adults in this age group who discussed the subject. By the way, they are our future community leaders and they are asking about this as well.

I can’t help but think also of how those of us in public office get subjected to written attacks (often anonymously) and being singled out. 2020 also has public health and elected officials being subjected to vicious personal attacks and while a certain amount comes with the territory of being elected or serving the public in a high profile position the impact of the peanut gallery at its worst can be profoundly negative and discourage others from service in the future. Some previously below-the-radar public officials are in the news media daily and have to get a security detail for their own protection. Lashing out is easy, public officials are certainly easy targets. A vulnerable young adult now considered himself under this microscope as well and one thing for certain is I would have no idea how it felt but given his mental illness, it must have been awful. And to any given person drawing negative public scrutiny it can be debilitating and not contributing a single positive point to the greater good. We also need to ask about whether we should be learning at a much younger age how to put our devices down; and also question whether we would say the same things face to face as we might on social media.

So, I certainly would like to be better informed about the true impact of social media and its constructive use. These things can have significant consequences and I’m asking to hear from agencies and the media some constructive responses.

Before moving to the 3rd topic for dialogue, I would like to thank the Haller family for their grace and courage to have a discussion with a municipal councillor and to allow us to think of them as the faces of mental health struggles in North Stormont.

Many of you know that my oldest son has a disability. When he started elementary school in Roxmore, we were thrilled that he was going to school with so called ‘normal kids’. The first kid in his kindergarten class I remember him mentioning by name was Andreas. Then, it was amazing to find out during our kitchen chat at the Hallers last week that another child with a disability thought the world of Andreas as well. So, my motivation to take action on this just ratcheted up a lot. Andreas made a mark… so let’s get moving

A very important third area of dialogue to talk about is a personal project that I would like to pursue and propose:  COVID-19 has had our community groups for the most part, shut down since March. Churches weren’t open, many community breakfast and church suppers didn’t happen, kids sports programs never got going and swimming pools didn’t open (it would have meant great risk and effort by the volunteer groups that operate them), groups such as the Finch and District Lions Club haven’t been meeting. Weddings, birthdays and other celebrations had to change how the events were marked.

Many of us are missing our personal interactions whether it be with friends or while getting things done for our communities. While preparing this message, it came to mind about walking down the concession road recently and a friend driving by who stopped his truck and we had a 10 minute chat to catch up and thinking about how uplifting it felt afterwards. Or, having had the opportunity to spend time with a Syrian refugee family who lived in North Stormont the last year had the same uplifting effect every time.

From our vantage point at the municipality, let’s start re-connecting our communities by leading the way to speed up safe re-launches. Community groups do great work and raise money for important causes.

The real reason to promote getting our community groups going again though is for the benefit of our mental health. It will take a while, to get events going perhaps but, we also need new volunteers. Earlier, we referred to spending time on our phones and devices reading and commenting on social media. Remember, if we are busy volunteering with a North Stormont fire station, joining a service club, working at a fundraising dinner, making a quilt with a sewing group, we are connecting with people directly. And that’s important.

This will take a while to get re-started, but we can kick things off in January with an information night for North Stormont groups of all types. Come together safely whether via Zoom or otherwise to get chatting about re-starts. Get educated about how to do so safely in a public health kind of way. The idea has been planted with internally and am looking forward to following up as soon as possible.

To sum up, the purpose of tonight’s message has been about mental health and having a dialogue in three areas. Accessing resources locally, being sensitive to posting on social media when there may be a reader of your post in a very vulnerable situation and finally promoting the idea of finding a way to getting all North Stormont community groups rolling again as a place for us to hang out, get things done and personally connect with each other.

Below: Suicides are likely up in Eastern Ontario during this pandemic year, says the region’s medical officer of health, Dr. Paul Roumeliotis.
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