After 18-year-old Steven Hutchison took his own life in his dorm room at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., earlier this year, a lot of his close friends kept in touch with his parents.
Young people who had known the popular, ever-smiling athlete brought his mother, Myrna Hutchison, a memory book with notes from groups of his friends and told her they wanted to do something.
"It just seemed that we needed something to help get us through this," says Hutchison.
"We needed to work towards a common goal and I thought maybe we could start planning an event of some sort."
That event unfolds today on the streets of Hutchison's hometown of Arthur, Ont., north of Kitchener. More than 500 people have signed up to take part in the Get In Touch For Hutch walkathon and race.
But Get In Touch For Hutch is more than a chance for participants to lace up their running shoes and get some exercise.
Funds raised will be directed toward organizations that support youth mental health. And from it all, organizers hope they can get young people talking and lay more groundwork for removing stigmas attached to suicide and mental illness.
"What we know is that Steven struggled and suffered in silence," says his mother.
"There was an amount of personal pride there that didn't allow him to feel comfortable talking about his feelings or the pressures or everyday stresses that he may have been experiencing like we all do."
"Our ultimate goal is … to erase the stigma that's attached to that. We don't want people to feel judged or ridiculed or to be any less of the person than they truly are because they talk about their feelings or emotions."
Getting people to talk about suicide and mental illness is not always easy. People may not wish to talk about feelings of depression. Deaths by suicide are not always publicly identified as such by families, or identified in the same way that deaths from cancer or heart disease might be described.
Instead, it could perhaps be a "hunting accident." Or maybe a person's death would be described as occurring "suddenly, at home." Or maybe it was only whispered about — or not talked about at all.
Get In Touch For Hutch joins initiatives such as D.I.F.D (Do It For Daron), a foundation created after the 2010 suicide of Daron Richardson, the 14-year-old daughter of former Ottawa Senators assistant coach Luke Richardson and his wife Stephanie, in taking a more open, public approach.
And they're being driven in large part by the young people who were immediately touched by their deaths.
"To be honest, I think the initiative started with the youth and … our goal was to support that in any possible way," says Stephanie Richardson.
"When we had young people ask us, 'Would you be upset if we made helmet stickers, would you be upset if we made bracelets,' our answer was always no."
D.I.F.D. aims to increase awareness and get people talking about youth mental health, and works with the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre towards those goals. Richardson says the achievements of the initiative have been remarkable.
"I think for Luke and I, as time went on … we were determined … that this wasn't going to be ignored. Our goal was that those conversations would happen in every home, in every school, in every hockey rink and in the community at large.
"And then you saw big people step up, like the Ottawa Sens Foundation, and say we're open to this conversation, we're going to have a night."
The Richardsons, who now live in Binghamton, N.Y., where Luke is head coach of the Binghamton Senators, were back in Ottawa this week and received honorary degrees from Algonquin College.
Stephanie has taken part in various public events and was on hand in Ottawa in April when Olympian Clara Hughes announced she will do a cross-country bike ride to talk to people about mental health.
"It's pretty powerful to see people get behind it, but it’s more just to create that dialogue and it became … the need for the kids to speak and use their voice and they kept doing it and I would say that it was more everybody following that lead,” says Stephanie.
For Hutchison, there is the hope that the message resonating from today's event in Arthur will get people thinking differently about mental illness.
“I think we have to find opportunities in everything we're involved in. For example … I think back about my boys going to hundreds of different arenas across Ontario and never once seeing a poster or banner about mental health support or Kids Help Phone or the crisis line,” she says.
"I haven't followed up with Brock, but I wonder about even something as simple as having a magnet or a sticker in that dorm room that had the crisis line on it — if Steven had seen that, would he have taken a second thought to make a call rather than end his life the way he did?"
Both Richardson and Hutchison have seen another phenomenon emerge: because people know of their family's experiences, they approach them with stories of how suicide has touched their families.
"The biggest showing of support for me has been that people have started talking. People are feeling OK to get in touch with me to share their personal stories," says Hutchison.
"I know stories, two in specific, that have been shared with me just recently in that people have experienced losses through suicide 20 years or so ago and just now are having their first conversations about that."
Richardson says "what is happening is overwhelming." At Algonquin this week, students stopped on stage to thank her and her husband and tell stories of themselves or others they know seeking help.
"Because of the conversations and because of the openness of our daughter's death, there has been major change and it's not because of us. It's because each person sees [themselves] in it and they’re comfortable” telling their stories.
Richardson would like to see discussions of mental health issues become mainstream in the education system, and that there be no different value placed on any death, whether it is by cancer, heart disease or suicide.
"I don't understand why the value is different…. That really does not make sense to me, but it seems … some people feel like there’s a shame with it, that there’s a lesser value of that person. That makes absolutely no sense to me."
Ultimately, for the Richardsons, going public about their daughter’s death wasn’t necessarily a choice.
"I think it just came with part of our life, with the career that my husband had,” says Stephanie Richardson.
"It’s a mixed blessing, but we are also very blessed that we do have therapy and we believe in it and that is very, very helpful to have medical help for ourselves."
One thing, she says, though, is that being public about suicide doesn't "take away our despair, our loss or the endless unanswered questions."
"Being public didn’t help that. It didn’t make it any easier. It didn’t make it any worse but it doesn’t make it easier. I certainly wouldn't want someone to think if they were public that it eases that sense of despair, loss and desperation to want to answer all those unanswered questions."
Dr. Raj Bhatla, chief of psychiatry of the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group, says there are a variety of ways families might cope with the suicide of a child. They need to be able to make the choices that suit them best, he says.
"It’s really a private choice of the family. It’s neither good nor bad to go public," Bhatla says.
"There shouldn't be a value judgment — go forward publicly or you don't go forward publicly. It's really for each individual family to make that choice. The losses remain."
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