Brian Hansell had frequent, deep, free-wheeling conversations with his 18-year-old son, Paul, and thought he knew all there was to know about his youngest child.
Paul, a talented musician and songwriter who was studying accounting at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., seemed to have adapted well to first-year university. He was active in business clubs, associations and competitions and was helping those around him settle into dorm life.
But Paul kept his struggles to himself, before taking his own life in December, 2010.
Hansell, a corporate wellness consultant in Dundas, Ont., was left with many questions after his son's death. He felt compelled to do something to bring attention to youth mental health.
He set to work on launching the Burlington-based Paul Hansell Foundation, which kicked off the ConvoPlate initiative one year ago. Hansell wanted a way to spark conversations about mental health and came up with the idea of people passing on colourful, rectangular plates, inscribed with inspiring messages, to shift away from stigma. He says the concept came out of imagining a way to initiate all the dinner-table conversations about mental health that needed to happen.
There are now 125 plates, hand-painted by youth through an art therapy program at the Art Gallery of Burlington and bearing messages of health, hope and awareness being passed to relatives, friends, colleagues and even strangers around the world. Each plate – made of stoneware and roughly the size of a dinner plate – is inscribed with: "Let's talk about mental health. Keep the conversation going." Many bear personalized messages from the creator, including: "You are loved," "Never give up" and "Sunshine is always on the horizon."
A participant's first step is to register his or her plate on the foundation's website. After that, participants post a picture of themselves with the plate on social media with the hashtag #ConvoPlate. Then, they pass the plate on to someone else and, with hope, make a donation. Hansell says more than 400 plate exchanges have been registered on the foundation's website, where they are tracked on a map as they are exchanged. (People can also purchase the plates).
Plates have been accepted and passed by hockey broadcaster Ron MacLean, TVO host Steve Paikin, former lieutenant-general Roméo Dallaire, astronaut Chris Hadfield, former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. Margaret Trudeau, mother of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was one of the first people to take a plate. One has even been delivered to Prince William and his wife, Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, at Kensington Palace.
The plates have been passed at community events, hospitals, schools, art galleries, hockey arenas, city halls, police stations, businesses, Parliament Hill and quiet dinner parties. They've been bundled into luggage on their way to Europe, Hong Kong and Australia. So far, the project has raised about $300,000 for mental-health causes, primarily through donations and also plate sales.
By the second anniversary of ConvoPlate on May 5, 2018, Hansell aims to have 1,000 plates in circulation with 2,000 registered passes and $1-million raised.
His ultimate goal is a mental-health program modelled on the nationwide physical fitness endeavour ParticipACTION.
"We need to help people know how to look after their mental health. That could change lives for generations to come," said Hansell, who manages the foundation with his daughter, Jolene, a second-year law student. "I will always have times when I mourn the loss of my son, but the more frequent emotions today are pride about what we're doing in starting conversations."
Last month, Hansell won a Champions of Mental Health Award from the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health. He shared his insights about surviving a loved one's suicide and delivering positive messages about mental health with The Globe and Mail.
How would you describe Paul and your relationship with him?
Paul was a loving, kind and caring individual. He put others in front of himself and the image of the foundation has been created as Paul lived. We had a very strong and positive relationship. I thought there was nothing we didn't talk about but I know now there was something he wasn't sharing. When he passed away due to suicide, it was a complete shock to me.
Why did you decide to create a foundation?
We felt it was important to try to save other people and their families from the loss we had experienced. Our foundation is dedicated to the emotional and mental well-being of youth. Within hours of Paul's death, we decided that we didn't want people to send flowers and that we would set up a scholarship fund or a foundation. We asked for donations to that.
How did the conversation plate initiative come to be?
We felt it was important to have dialogues that weren't happening. I would get invited to someone's home and bring hors d'oeuvre and a hostess gift. But I felt it just wasn't meaningful. So instead of a gift, I would send a thank you note afterward and tell them I had made a contribution in their name to mental health. It made me feel good for a while but I wanted to keep the conversation going. I imagined a plate where the food was removed to reveal a message that could start a conversation about mental health and the things we can do to stay positive and healthy.
How did it come to be that a plate was sent to Will and Kate ?
A primary school in Scotland sent the plate to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The assistant headmaster was visiting his brother, who is a neighbour [of mine]. We got talking about the amazing things the school system in Scotland does to promote mental health. I gave him a plate and two students wrote letters to Will and Kate. The school got a letter back saying they would love to get the plate and to send it by Royal Mail. There was a big send-off in the town April 20 and now we're waiting for official confirmation they got it.
Can you describe what it's like to carry on after a suicide?
The mind wants everything to be in logical sequence, so the people left behind are left trying to figure it out. You look back at every conversation and believe somehow you're responsible. What didn't I see? What didn't I ask? I will always have more questions than I have answers. And no answer will change the outcome.
What is your dream when it comes to public understanding and awareness of mental health?
We talk a lot about our physical health and our aches and pains but we don't talk about our mental health because we don't know how to. My son didn't choose to take his life. His disease chose that. We need to spread understanding, kindness and compassion and we need to inspire people to look after their own mental health every day.
This interview has been condensed and edited.