HALIFAX — As a Cape Breton school board grapples with multiple teen suicides, the Nova Scotia government is sending a youth mental health expert to the grief-stricken community and promising new anti-cyberbullying legislation this fall.
Dr. Stan Kutcher, a Dalhousie University psychiatry professor, will travel to Cape Breton Monday to talk to families, schools, and the community about mental health concerns and what supports they need.
He is expected to report back to the province in the coming weeks.
The parents of a 13-year-old girl who took her own life on Father's Day said bullying led to her death, and more needs to be done to protect other young people. They said their daughter, Madison Wilson, was subject to verbal abuse at school and through social media.
Premier Stephen McNeil said the province needs to have a broader conversation about bullying, especially online attacks.
"I can't imagine how some of these young kids who are exposed to that are feeling," he said Thursday. "We need to have a public conversation about what's happening online. Our children can't get away from it."
McNeil said he hopes the province will engage the public in a broader conversation when it rolls out its updated anti-cyberbullying legislation.
Nova Scotia's Cyber-Safety Act, the first law of its kind in Canada designed to protect victims of online harassment, was struck down in late 2015 after the province's top court ruled that it infringed on Charter rights.
The law was passed in response to the death of Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old girl who was bullied and died after a suicide attempt.
Justice Minister Mark Furey said Thursday the recent suicides in Cape Breton, with at least one tied to cyberbullying, underscore the importance of the new legislation.
"We're positioned now to introduce legislation this fall," he said.
Furey said he hopes Kutcher, an expert on adolescent mental health, will be able to inform the province on what steps can be taken to support the community.
"Dr. Kutcher is a recognized mental health expert so his presence and participation in the discussion in Cape Breton will help the families, the school and the community deal with these tragic circumstances," he said.
Darren Googoo, chairman of the Cape Breton Victoria Regional School Board, said this week the board is drafting a letter to the provincial Education Department with the idea of starting a dialogue on the issue.
"Our students are dealing with the trauma associated with the loss of a schoolmate and, going into the summer months, we want to make sure that we have a more co-ordinated approach with our provincial partners in health, in terms of providing services," Googoo said.
Education Minister Zach Churchill said the province needs to "work together" to better understand the factors that contribute to teen suicides.
"We do have a collective responsibility to better understand these things, to learn from them and do our very best to improve the supports available," he said. "We need to have an honest, open and frank conversation."
However, it's unclear whether additional resources, such as guidance counsellors or psychologists, will be made available.
In fact, Health Minister Randy Delorey said the province put additional resources in place for schools but it's up to the board to decide "where exactly the resources are being allocated."
He said questions about "how they're choosing to spend their resources" are better directed to the school board.
However, he did admit that mental health is an area of priority for the province that requires more attention.