Judy Dunn considered her son to be a typical teenager when he was 15 years old.
Andrew Dunn was a little sullen at times, but Judy didn’t think it was terribly unusual until the day she was cleaning his room and found a binder under his bed.
“I opened it up and started seeing some very, very dark things,” Judy said from her home in Cooks Creek. “All told, he wanted to die.
“I couldn’t believe it.” Judy confronted Andrew who, at first was angry she found it, but eventually admitted he wasn’t feeling well.
Until that day, there had been no signs that Andrew had suffered from mental illness. Judy, who has a younger son, Robert, described Andrew as quick learner, who was “happy go lucky” and did well in school at a young age.
He didn’t take it well when the family moved from Charleswood to Cooks Creek before he started Grade 6, but that was expected of any child who moved away from a group of friends.
After finding the binder they “did all the right things,” Judy said, adding they started with their family doctor then a youth adolescent mental health worker.
Andrew was prescribed anti-depressant medication and as time went on he claimed he was doing better, Judy said.
“I think that’s part of the problem with any mental illness — you just put on a hat and a mask in the morning and carry on, because you really don’t want to talk about it, especially at that age,” she said.
“You want to fit in, that’s what kids want more than anything. Having moved, he certainly didn’t want to be different.”
Andrew was on and off his medication into adulthood, but overall Judy thought her son was doing better. However, at age 23 while working in the hospitality industry, he didn’t get a management position he had applied for and “felt like a failure,” Judy said.
She was startled at how hard he took the setback, considering his young age.
“To feel like a failure at that age I think says a lot about people feel about themselves when they’re afflicted with any kind of mental health issue,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter if people are telling you you’re good, you don’t feel like you are.” Nevertheless, there were still no major signs leading up to Dec. 12, 2006 — the day Andrew died by suicide.
He was 23.
“I did not expect or suspect anything at that particular time,” Judy said. “Throughout the years, off and on, certainly I was concerned and watchful … but the day he did actually die, I saw no signs.” On the contrary, Judy recalled Andrew was even “playful” that day leading up to Christmas, pretending to be one of the family’s dogs by scratching at the door when he came home.
He told his mom he wouldn’t be late that night before he went out for the evening, noting he worked the early shift the next day.
“He gave me a kiss goodbye and said ‘I love you’ like he always did,” Judy said. “He was a very caring person.”
Days after Andrew died Judy learned from friends he had said things such as “I don’t have to worry about Christmas this year.” As a result, she thinks he had a plan to end his life, but there’s no way of knowing why he chose that night.
Ten years later, Judy still wakes up some days and struggles to accept Andrew is gone.
“Grief is an incredible journey,” she said, adding there is an added sense of guilt when a child dies by suicide.
“You start to wonder, was it something I did? Could I have prevented it?”
Andrew’s friends also had trouble accepting it, which is why within days of her son’s death, Judy, Robert and Andrew’s friends got to work on establishing andrewdunn.org. The grassroots organization helps educate and create awareness surrounding mental health issues and suicide.
The group partners with other agencies to reduce the stigma of mental illness and each year, on the Saturday before Mother’s Day, it hosts the Andrew Dunn walk/run in Oakbank. This year’s event raised about $70,000.
The funds go toward education, awareness, mental health initiatives and stigma reduction.
“Even saying the term mental illness causes people to cringe and look at you in a different light,” Judy said.
It was important for Judy, from the day Andrew died, to not hide from what caused his death. At the bottom of his obituary, it listed donations could be made to suicide prevention.
“Andrew made the statement that he couldn’t go on any longer,” she said. “You can’t hide that, because that’s disrespectful to his death.
“He was prior to that the happy person who lost his life along the way.”
Being diagnosed with depression or anxiety shouldn’t be viewed any differently than a treatable illness, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, Judy said.
“Those illnesses are with you forever,” she noted. “They never say ‘take this and in three months you’ll be better.’
“You have to change things and work at it.”
ERs failing to properly assess suicide risk
Changing how people with mental health issues are treated at hospital emergency rooms would go a long way toward preventing suicide, say those who’ve lost love ones.
“You go to the ER and if you have to sit there for seven hours and you leave — I know of several that when they left that’s when they went home and killed themselves,” said Judy Dunn, whose son Andrew Dunn was 23 when he died by suicide in 2006.
“Because you’ve just confirmed two things. One — you don’t care. Two — you can’t help me. I might as well go and follow through.”
Dunn knows of at least two cases where people who later died of suicide previously went to the ER with rope burns around their necks.
“If you go into the ER and they see that, they realize there were already attempts,” she said. “Why would you ignore them for seven hours?
“Is that not just as critical as someone coming in grabbing their chest?”
Bev Geddes agrees.
She lost her son Colin Edmond to suicide on April 4, 2014. Geddes was unable to get help for her 19-year-old son at ER visits over six weeks before he died, she said. Each time she was given brochures before being sent on her way.
The last time they went in Geddes told the doctor Colin said he planned to crash his car and kill himself.
“If I had walked in with my son and said ‘he’s having a heart attack’ nobody would have stuffed brochures in our hands and said ‘OK, come back in six weeks,’ ‘’ Geddes said.
“… That has to change.”
Dunn, who lives in Cooks Creek, scoffed at how some rural ERs are only open on a rotating basis. In those instances, it’s suggested patients should check online to see which ER is open at a given time.
“I know personally, if I’ve just fallen down the stairs … or if I’m having a heart attack – for sure I’m going to go on the website and check it out,” she said sarcastically.
“It’s called an emergency room. Money needs to be going into the right place or don’t even pretend that we have one. Either we have an ER or we don’t even have a hospital.”
Parents of children suffering from mental illness can go online to find a variety of services to help them, says Bonnie Bricker, director of the family navigation program at Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba.
Parents should start with their family doctor, but there are also many other sources available, Bricker advised.
“You need to be your own advocate,” Bricker said. “You need to go out and pursue these organizations that offer programming not only for the patient, but also for the parent.”