08/02/2017 17:20 EDT | Updated 08/02/2017 17:20 EDT

Nova Scotia Teen Suicides: Province Needs To Look Beyond Bullying For Solutions: Mental Health Expert

Mental health is a complex problem.

Canadian Press
Dr. Stanley Kutcher, a renowned expert in the area of adolescent mental health, addresses a news conference in Halifax on Wednesday.

HALIFAX — The mental health expert who looked into a spate of Cape Breton teen suicides says authorities have to look beyond bullying in their response.

"I think there is this tendency to assume that bullying causes every single problem that young people have, which is just not true," said Dr. Stan Kutcher, a Dalhousie University psychiatry professor.

He presented seven recommendations to the Nova Scotia government Wednesday aimed at bolstering mental health services in the wake of the suicides of three teens, at least two of whom had been bullied.

Kutcher's work was the result of three days of consultation and fact-finding with families, school staff and the community after he was dispatched to Cape Breton as part of the province's response in late June.

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Kutcher said a comprehensive approach is needed on teen mental health, which he described as a complex social problem.

Kutcher recommended a provincial policy be developed to address students' responsible use of personal devices such as cellphones on school grounds.

However, he said he didn't know how such a regime could be extended to when students are away from school — and a wider public discussion needs to take place on where responsibilities lie.

"What can governments do to help, what do parents need to do to help, what can schools do to help educate young people, and frankly what is the responsibility that every young person has in the use of that device," he said.

Education Minister Zach Churchill said the province has a policy governing smart devices on school networks — it demands "appropriate online behaviour" and prohibits cyberbullying — and it would now look at expanding the policy to see if it can cover cellular networks.

We've attempted to tackle this challenge in the network policy and we are now going to expand that conversation to include all devices.Zach Churchill

But Churchill said he wasn't sure what specific measures might best prevent bullying.

"I don't think there's a simple answer to that. We've attempted to tackle this challenge in the network policy and we are now going to expand that conversation to include all devices."

Provincial officials said they would immediately spend $192,000 boosting mental health supports at the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board, which asked for more help in the wake of the suicides. The money would be used to hire two guidance counsellors and a social worker at the board.

Justin Newell, a 13-year-old transgender boy from Cape Breton, took his own life June 3 after being bullied through social media.

Chris Royal, of North Sydney, N.S., spoke out in June following the death of his 13-year-old daughter, Madison Wilson. The girl took her own life on Fathers Day after what her parents said was persistent verbal abuse at school and through social media.

Royal said Wednesday that Kutcher's recommendations were simply a good first step.

And while he applauded the new support staff for the school board, Royal said it was more about plugging holes that already exist in the system, rather than adding extra help.

"All I see are words until the government actually acts to enforce it," he said of the overall recommendations.

"It needs to happen for our kids."

Paul Darrow / Reuters
A group of teens comfort each other during a vigil for 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons at Victoria Park in Halifax on April 11, 2013. Parsons died after committing suicide.

Other recommendations from Kutcher included providing more staff for the province-wide mental health crisis line, and a single "structure" to address all school mental health policies.

He also called for the provincial suicide prevention policy to be updated, and said there needed to be an approved list of mental health-related and intervention programs that could be used from primary to Grade 12.

Another part of the puzzle is expected this fall, when the provincial government plans to roll out its updated anti-cyberbullying legislation.

The province's previous Cyber-Safety Act, the first of its kind in Canada, was struck down in late 2015 after the Nova Scotia Supreme Court ruled that it infringed on Charter rights.

The law was passed as part of the response to the death of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons — a Halifax-area girl who was bullied and died after a suicide attempt.

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