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The Stigma Of Mental Health Cost This 23-Year-Old His Life

04/22/2014 05:50 EDT | Updated 06/22/2014 05:59 EDT
Andrea Zanchi via Getty Images

That day in April 2009, Daniel Keane was up at his family cottage. His parents spoke to him by phone and he said he'd be back in Oakville by dinner. But he never arrived.

His parents called the police that night, saying they'd expected him. The next morning, a neighbour checked in on the cottage and found Daniel's body.

He had turned 23 the month before.

Bruce and Lynn drove to their youngest daughter Emily's school to tell her that her brother had died by suicide. They next drove to London to pick up their other daughter, Aimee from university. Their cries filled the car along the highway. Lynn climbed in the backseat to hold Emily in her arms.

At first, Aimee did not believe the news but slowly came to understand. The family drove home in silence.

When they arrived home, Lynn went into her backyard. She sat by herself trying to make sense of Daniel's death. Aimee came and they sat together for a long time. After a while, Aimee said, 'I know you will make something good come from this."

The night before, Lynn had comforted herself with the idea that she and Bruce would sit down with their son and ask him if they could help him with anything and try to understand his problems. She did not think she needed to rush to the cottage. She did not think her son needed saving.

Soon, Lynn and Bruce would learn from Daniel's college that he was no longer attending classes and hadn't been for quite a while. His friends said Daniel was wonderful and fun but at times would not communicate for days.

A few years before, after starting university, Daniel had become more distant.

"He was changing, but he was growing. I didn't think he was a candidate for depression. He came home and ran a summer business. We thought he was doing well at school. We thought things had changed. We don't always look in the dark corners."

Daniel wasn't sleeping well at night and he lost weight.

"Taken on their own, we didn't know the pain our son was in," Keane said. "Looking back, there were opportunities to look at things. We never drilled down to get at the core of things and it's hard for young people to say 'I am in trouble,' especially young males.

"It is so complex why someone struggles with suicidal thoughts. There are not three or four signs that say this is what is happening."

For a long time after Daniel's death, Keane shut down. She was not interested in other people or her usual interests. She didn't want to hear condolences and be told to be strong. But she told herself, if she made it through, she would share her experience.

"The crime and the horror is that we couldn't help him."

Keane has dedicated her life to sharing her family's story, educating about the causes of depression and the importance of treating mental illness. She has written Give Sorrow Words, a literary memoir that shares her quest to understand her son's death and challenges how we stigmatize mental illness. Give Sorrow Words interweaves memories of the last months of Daniel's life with Keane's grieving process. Keane documents warning signs leading to Daniel's death.

The book delves into how our society treats mental illness and what support is available for young people. Using research and interviews about adolescent depression, chronic health conditions and brain injury, Keane argues for additional support and treatment.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young Canadians. And it's not just a problem here. A recent article in The Guardian in the U.K. said that a National Union of Students study conducted in May 2013 shows that one in five students consider themselves to have a mental health problem.

Students are under pressure to succeed academically and maintain a social life. Many have trouble leaving home and balancing university life with other commitments. There needs to be a shift in the way we view and speak about mental health. The stigma hurts people who need to talk about their troubles. The fear of being misunderstood or shamed keeps them silent.

"This was completely out of the order of life. We were completely shattered. It was hard to help each other," Keane says. "You shut down so you can protect what's left. Then you emerge and realize you have to help each other."

Family and friends were shocked by Daniel's death because of the Keanes' close-knit relationship.

"We had our ups and downs but the kids always chose to be with us, to spend free time with us. It's why the loss was so great."

Daniel was a fearless athlete and a great cook. He loved to make people laugh and could easily do so with Lynn. He hated to see others suffer and did what he could to take any hurt away.

"I could not understand the pain he was in. He loved life and yet the symptoms of depression can stop you in your tracks," Keane said.

"Had he been able to open up about his pain, this might be a different story."

Keane created a mental health awareness video. See it here.

Keane's website also includes mental health resources.

Keane recommends:

- If you are concerned about your child's mental health, bring those inquiries to him or her with compassion and love, not with judgement

- Look for signs such as physical changes, inability to concentrate, not attending school, sleeping more or sleeping less, appetite changes

- Demystify mental illness. Start to talk about mental health in age appropriate ways with your children. This way, they may find it easier to talk about.

Keane believes we need:

- Some way to communicate with post-secondary schools relating to student absence

- Accessible community-based support for young adults

- Mental health literacy for front-line care providers, such as doctors.

- Media awareness and sensitivity to mental illness reporting

- Anti-stigma philosophy promotion from elementary grades through Grade 12.

- Enhanced support and resources for survivors of suicide

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