Our Fall 2013 issue featured an interview with Yolanda Cameron, whose son Wes had died two years previous by suicide. She and her husband Jamie launched Wes for Youth Online to provide support to youth who were suffering from mental illness or contemplating suicide. This is their story.
For two years, pain has been a constant companion of Yolanda Cameron.
It drains from her eyes and undercoats each laugh, sometimes in the same breath.
Always, it threatens to best her, to keep her all to itself, shutting out the world. Yet she refuses to give in. She can’t bear the thought of another family experiencing her ultimate pain, the unexplainable loss of a child.
On Sept. 26, 2011, her son Wes took his own life.
There were no apparent warning signs, cries for help, or failed attempts from the popular, athletic and charismatic 16-year-old. He left no note, no glimpse as to why.
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t be inside his mind to know what he was thinking,” Yolanda said, a tear touching her cheek in unison with the heavens reaching the streets of Walkerton, on a rainy June morning. “It hurts so much knowing Wes felt so much pain there was no other way out for him.”
Wes hid it well. To Yolanda, his Dad Jamie and older brothers Jay and Wendel, Wes was a social, generous and caring person with a radiant smile that automatically drew people in.
“Wes had friends all over the place. That boy…” Yolanda smirked, her voice trailing into a whisper, “Unreal.”
His eagerness to show affection, even in his teen years, was the envy of other Moms who longed for the days their baby boys weren’t embarrassed to be seen in public with them.
“He’d throw his arm around me in front of his friends at the hockey rink and give me a kiss before we went our separate ways. The other Moms would always say to their sons, ‘See! Wes isn’t afraid to kiss his Mom in public!’” Yolanda chuckled.
He was also a regular kid, the baby in a three-boy family. He whined when he didn’t get his way or when his siblings teased him as only brothers can. He was in constant contact with his friends and, the Camerons would soon learn, a strong shoulder for many schoolmates to lean on.
“After he died, we received letters from kids saying he always made them feel better. He’d say, ‘Tomorrow is another day, so look after yourself because things will get better,’” she said, her omnipresent pain streaking across her face as she asks a question, surely for the thousandth time, despite knowing the answer will never come.
“Why didn’t he listen to himself?”
After his death, Yolanda and Jamie took to Wes’s Facebook profile and text messages in search of answers, and what they found shocked them. Friends and classmates continued to confide in Wes – they openly bared their hearts, their personal struggles and darkest demons, including thoughts of joining him in suicide.
“We quickly realized a lot of kids needed to talk. They were writing messages to his accounts knowing he wasn’t going to write back.”
Yolanda and Jamie wondered how many parents of these children were like them, oblivious to the internal turmoil with which their teens were battling.
“If our kids seem normal there’s no reason to think there’s a problem. We parents have no idea about a lot of things in their lives, because kids keep to themselves or talk amongst themselves and not to us. But they’re still only kids. They don’t know how to take the next step to help themselves, no matter how badly they need to take that next step.”
While their grief was all consuming, they knew they couldn’t sit idly by while this happened to another family, not after reading the messages in Wes’s inbox. It was obvious these kids either didn’t feel comfortable talking to the adults in their lives or had tried and not received the response they required.
“The family unit is different now as divorce becomes more common. Some parents may not see their kids as much, so they may not notice changes in their behaviour. Others know there’s a problem and are at their wits end trying to find help and don’t know where to go.”
To help both kids and the adults who love them, she and Jamie opened a storefront in downtown Walkerton and launched an online project called Wes for Youth Online – www.wesforyouthonline.ca – which provides crisis line numbers, personal stories from local teens, health information, and, as of June 2013, online counseling. The counseling software, which was developed by World Wide Therapy Online (www.therapyonline.ca), is designed specifically for youth, allowing users to send encrypted emails to licensed therapists, who will open a dialogue with the child.
“Since the email is encrypted, it’s secure and confidential, so the kids can write anything that’s on their mind, without fear of a family member or friend reading it,” Yolanda said. “It’s also designed so youth don’t require parental consent to register for the program, which adds to the confidentiality.”
In the first three weeks of the program, 12 youth have already registered at Wes for Youth Online. There are no geographical pockets of Grey-Bruce youth who are using the program, which is encouraging to Yolanda, because it means the Wes for Youth Online message is casting a wide net.
“It’s also completely free of charge, because I don’t want finances to stop someone from getting help.”
The first year of www.wesforyouthonline.ca has been more successful than the Camerons imagined possible, with local youth rallying around the initiative through mental health education walks, choosing the topic for school projects and raising funds and awareness by holding a hockey tournament in Hanover. Yolanda has also been asked to speak at both secondary and elementary schools, because even kids as young as eight can be under great stress and have nowhere to turn for help.
“I have to be very careful when I talk to kids, because they may not be old enough to understand (the act of) suicide,” Yolanda said. “So I tell them Wes didn’t think he could talk to people, and yet his head felt really full and it hurt so much because there was so much in there. I tell them they need to talk to someone, because it makes you feel better.”
After speaking at a school last year, Yolanda was told a youngster went to the principal’s office the next day and said they needed to talk. This success signifies the need for the program, yet her personal pain makes it difficult to savour the victory.
“The first thought I had was, ‘That’s awesome, another family gets to keep their child.’ But why couldn’t we keep ours? We’ll never know, and that’s the thing about suicide.”
Speaking engagements are physically exhausting for the grieving mother, but she feels an obligation to let both children and adults know the importance of education, knowledge and eliminating the stigma of mental health issues.
“People always say I’m so strong or brave, but I’m not. I do it because I have to. I meet and talk to people and then fall apart when I get home.”
But saving one child isn’t good enough, and that’s what drives Yolanda and Jamie to open the office each morning, engage youth and educate adults.
“All families should have their kids grow to wonderful adults. Kids have so much potential and sometimes they just need a little help along the way.”
For more information, visit www.westforyouthonline.ca, visit the Camerons at their Walkerton storefront at 427 Durham St., E., or call 519-507-3737 (toll free 1-855-577-3737).
Kids need to disconnect from their devices
Today’s teens have been raised in a connected world, a world where everyone you need is a text, Tweet or Facebook message away, no matter the time of day.
For many parents who are unfamiliar with social media and smartphones, or find them to be a fun, time-wasting novelty, it is difficult to understand just how important these methods of communication are to youth today.
Had she kept a closer eye on her son’s texting and social media practices, Yolanda Cameron believes she may have saved his life.
“The weekend before Wes died there were text messages coming into and leaving his phone until 5 a.m. If he had a couple of hours of sleep, he may have been more mentally prepared to face the day.”
Another goal of www.wesforyouthonline.ca is to raise awareness of and promote what it takes for youth today to be mentally healthy. The common sense solution won’t come as a surprise to adults, but for youth who are continuously plugged in to their friends and classmates, it doesn’t come natural to them.
Eat healthy. Sleep well. Exercise.
“These three things are such keys to a healthy mind,” Yolanda said. “Kids are so connected now that they get visibly anxious when they can’t get service on their phone, and this anxiety – combined with lack of sleep from being available at all hours – can lead to unhealthy children.”
Parents will remember their school years, when classmates were left behind as soon as the bus pulled out of the parking lot, providing kids with over 12 hours to clear their mind and prepare to adapt to the daily stresses of school life the following day. Now, youth cannot get away from contact with their peers, and are constantly adding to their mental stress levels.
“When do kids today have any downtime? When do they recharge their batteries?” Yolanda said. “I now know everyone in the house should put their phones in the kitchen when they go to bed, get a good night’s sleep and start fresh in the morning.”