Parents who lose a child to suicide rarely want to talk about it in public. Yet more and more now reject the notion that their tragedy carries a stigma. They are sharing their stories in the hope that by doing so they will keep others from sharing their pain.
Some families – such as those of Daron Richardson and Jack Windeler – go even further. They have launched campaigns to strengthen the social safety net that too frequently fails Canada's troubled youth.
Daron was 14 and in her first year of high school in Ottawa when she took her own life last November, eight months after Jack, a high-achieving 18-year-old in his first year of university, had done the same two hours away in Kingston.
Both were from close-knit families and hid their distress exceptionally well from their parents, former hockey pro Luke Richardson, now an assistant coach with the Ottawa Senators, and his wife, Stephanie, and Toronto businessman Eric Windeler and his wife, Sandra Hanington, an engineer and senior executive in the financial industry.
The campaigns dedicated to their memory – Do It For Daron and The Jack Project – have similar goals. They hope to change a culture that too often treats mental illness as a shameful secret, to have teens, parents and teachers discuss the signs that someone may be struggling and how to help, and to offer a lifeline to those in need of one.
The money each has raised is being used for programs that focus on the education system and employ modern technology, such as live chat, mobile applications and video games, that is identified so closely with youth culture.
This semester, a $500,000 venture financed in part by Do It For Daron, which is managed by the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health in partnership with the Richardsons, is providing 600 students in Grades 11 and 12 at more than a dozen Ottawa-area schools with a primer on mental illness designed to teach them when to seek help, for themselves or for a friend. They will undergo six to nine hours of instruction, and some will be given booster sessions that use computer games.
Teachers receive training as well, on mental illness and what to look for. Teens can hide depression, even suicide attempts, and it can be hard to distinguish potential signs of a serious problem, such as withdrawing from friends and family and losing interest in regular activities, from common adolescent behaviour, such as experimenting with alcohol and sleeping until noon.
The program also doubles as a research project. A team led by Rob Milin, director of the adolescent day-treatment unit at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, will track the students for a year, comparing them with a control group to see if the curriculum improves understanding of mental illness and the likelihood that a teen will seek help. Participants will be able to respond to follow-up questions using their computers or smartphones. All the students, including those in the control group, will get information on where to turn for help if they need it.
Dr. Milin and Stan Kutcher, a specialist in adolescent mental health at Dalhousie University who designed the curriculum, want to determine how useful schools can be in reaching the vast number of young people trying to deal with mental illness on their own. Afflictions such as depression and schizophrenia often start in the teen years or early adulthood, but the Canadian Mental Health Association says only one young sufferer in five is likely to get help.
"We know that 70 per cent of all mental disorders can be diagnosed before age 25," Dr. Kutcher says. "The problem is not that we don't know how to diagnose and treat them. … But we are not identifying the kids who need help.
The curriculum is still a work in progress, but an initial version is available online (http://teenmentalhealth.org). If the study shows that it is effective, schools across the country may be encouraged adopt it.
The Richardsons say instruction like this may have helped their daughter. They had no experience with mental illness, they say, and Daron seemed unable to tell them, or her friends, how she really felt.
"We didn't know the language, but if the kids know it, they bring it home; they almost teach the parents sometimes," Mrs. Richardson says. "Once you hear it, you can open that discussion."
Even if there are no outward signs of trouble, she and her husband hope that families will talk about mental illness, perhaps using a pamphlet or a page from their campaign's website to spark the conversation.
The Jack Project, an initiative the Windeler family has founded with Kids Help Phone, is aimed at a slightly older group – young men and women making the transition from high school to college, university or independent living. Jack's father, Eric Windeler, has devoted himself to the venture full-time, generating significant media attention and $1-million in donations, and is now working on a partnership with the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
Like the Richardsons, he and his wife had no clear sense of what was going on with their son. When home to visit, Jack pretended everything was okay, but back at Queen's University, he had stopped going to classes and was spending most of his time in his room. Nobody seemed to notice. The handwritten note he left clearly stated that he was hiding his pain – it's likely that he was suffering from severe depression.
The university, which had at least three student suicides last year, last week announced that it is creating a "commission on mental health" to seek ways to help those in need.
Mr. Windeler, meanwhile, is working on several initiatives. About $300,000 from The Jack Project will go toward a project at Kids Help Phone that will allow anyone 20 or under to chat with trained counsellors using their laptops or mobile devices.
It's an approach Mr. Windeler feels might have appealed to Jack. "He told us in his note that he didn't know how to ask for help. But he was very proficient online. He was a gamer. I know for certain that he would never have picked up a phone, but an online resource might have made a difference."
Males, he explains, make up only 20 per cent of callers to the help line, but research indicates they may be more comfortable with counselling via online chat.
The Jack Project is also conducting workshops, making presentations and surveying 22 high schools and 12 colleges and universities in Ontario to find out what they do for mental health and whether it's effective.
They want to identify the best ideas and programs to include in an online "tool box" every school in Canada can use. It will include information about established organizations, like Mental Health First Aid, which trains people to provide immediate assistance to someone in difficulty, as well as smaller local initiatives that have proven themselves.
Both the Richardsons and the Windelers find a measure of solace in trying to spare other parents the pain of losing a child to suicide. The ultimate goal is to remove the stigma so that young people who need help will seek it – and their friends, families or teachers will recognize that they're in distress.
"It is just another form of illness … and yet it is the most deadly to young people, by far," Mr. Windeler says. "It is part of the human condition and we have to learn to deal with it."
Anne McIlroy is a Globe and Mail writer based in Ottawa. For more information about the family campaigns, visit www.doitfordaron.com and www.thejackproject.org. The Kids Help Phone may be reached at 1-800-668-6868 or via http://kidshelpphone.ca