Several boxes of tissues circulated the room, with people of all ages, genders and backgrounds plucking a couple from the box before passing it on to their neighbour. Every seat was full and every inch of wall had people leaning against it for support. A line of people waited outside, hoping to get in long after the room had reached capacity. A cell phone was set up, live streaming the event for those watching from home.
This was not a concert or a sports game. It wasn’t a council meeting or a club gathering. It was a community coming together to grieve, to learn, to connect and to talk about something that people generally avoid talking about at all costs.
On February 12, residents of the Elk Valley came together at the Fernie Senior’s Centre for the first ever Elk Valley Suicide Task Force Information Evening. The purpose of the night was to acknowledge that it’s okay not to be okay and that suicide is something that affects the entire community.
Although tears flowed freely from speakers and residents both throughout the night, there was still a resounding feeling of hope in the air. Hope that things might change and that lives might be saved as a result of this meeting.
The evening began with a short address by Fernie mayor Ange Qualizza, who encouraged a feeling of fellowship in the room and in the greater community by asking everyone to stand up, greet their neighbours and thank them for being courageous enough to come to the meeting.
“We don’t have a lot of goals for tonight,” she began. “We just met our biggest goal with this group because this room is full.” She went on to add that she, and all of the other speakers for the evening were there “to try and get you guys the information that you need.”
After Qualizza welcomed everyone, Tammy Ogden took centre stage.
With tears in her eyes, Ogden told the story of the day she lost her twin brother to suicide. Seeing her courage and hearing the strength in her voice had a visible impact on the community members watching. As she shared her personal story, it was easy to see that her words and her experience resonated with many people in the room, proof that suicide is a much farther reaching issue than we often think.
Ogden’s bravery in sharing her story set the tone for the rest of evening as two founding members of the Elk Valley Suicide Task Force, Tyla Charbonneau and Ev Eijsermans took the stage to explain why they decided to launch the task force and to host the information night.
“Every 40 seconds, someone dies by suicide so every 41 seconds, someone is left to make sense of this,” said Eijsermans, who was representing both the task force and the Elk Valley RCMP Victim Services unit. “Death by suicide happens everywhere and as some of you here in this room will have experienced, also in the Elk Valley…That is why we’re here today. To talk about this word that has so much stigma around it that for many of us it’s impossible to speak openly about it. But it needs to be said out loud. People die by suicide and other people are left to question why for the rest of their lives.”
Eijsermans went on to point out the undeniable fact that the suicide rate in the Elk Valley has increased over the last year.
“It has come to the point where many of us here are wondering what the hell is happening and what we can do about it,” she said. “At this point in time, my team here, we don’t exactly know our long term vision but as a task force we do agree that it was better to do something than to do nothing at all. So here we are.”
The evening was broken up into two segments. For the first half, 13 speakers representing different resources in the Elk Valley introduced themselves and talked about how they could help people struggling with mental health issues or suicidal ideation.
There were representatives from Fellaship men’s group, Child and Youth Mental Health, the Canadian Abilities Network, the Canadian Mental Health Association, Elk Valley RCMP, the Fernie Women’s Resource Centre, as well as the Elkford school counsellor, a family physician and emergency room doctor, a social worker, Cherished Memories Funeral Home, Mountainside Church, the Elk Valley Critical Incident Response Team and finally, East Kootenay Addiction Services Society.
Each speaker stood in front of the crowd of people, ensuring them that they are not alone, that there are people in the community who can offer support, resources and the ability to simply listen.
“When it comes to helping other people something as simple as sitting beside someone and saying, ‘I can’t even understand what this is like for you. I can’t take away your pain but I can sit here and I can be with you’ can make a world of difference in people’s lives,” Charbonneau explained to the crowd. “When we sit with someone and listen and we don’t fix, we don’t solve, we don’t try and make everything better, we can really make a difference.”
This idea of listening to the needs of the community was visible in the second half of the evening, during which mayor Qualizza read questions that had been anonymously submitted by the crowd. As she voiced the questions and concerns of residents, the various panel speakers took the opportunity to answer and educate as best as they could.
The questions raised were quite varied with residents voicing concern over wait list times for family doctors in the Elk Valley as well as suggesting support programs that might be successful in the region. Many of the questions centred around what to do if you recognize someone in your life needs help. One person wondered what free resources are available to those with financial restraints.
All in all, the room was filled with people eager to make our community a better, more supportive and more connected place for everyone.
As the evening drew to a close, the task force members encouraged people to access the large table of brochures at the back of the room and to stick around to ask questions or speak with the various support workers available. Summing the event up nicely, Eijsermans had this to say.
“With the panel of speakers tonight, we want to show you what resources are currently available in the valley, whether that is for yourself, who may be having suicidal thoughts or for you, who may have lost a dear friend or person in your life to death by suicide. There is help out there and we are here.”
If you or anyone you know is in crisis and at risk of suicide please call 911, go to your local emergency room or call 1-800-426-8407 if you are an adult or 1-800-784-2433 if you are a youth.