Barb Sweet Published on May 21, 2009
Verboom’s dad, Tim, killed himself in 2004 when Ben was just 15, his sister, Erin, 8, and brother, Ryan, 17.
Tim Verboom, a professional photographer, had suffered from depression and the death shocked and devastated his family. He was 40.
Ben had bonded with his dad over cycling all his life and he took a long hiatus after the death.
Recalling his father’s own activism, he decided to embark on a three-month trip across Canada.
Father and son had taken many trips together and had talked about doing a coast-to-coast cycling trek.
“It’s in my father’s honour,” said Ben. “He will be with me the entire trip. He taught me everything I know.”
The last major trip the pair made was two weeks to Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario the summer before Ben’s father died.
Looking back on it, he realizes cycling was a relief for his father.
“We were getting away from everything. I didn’t realize it was his way of escaping,” Ben said.
Ben was packing up to leave midday from the Cape Spear parking lot Wednesday, arranging gear on his bike. He had to send some stuff home, clothes his mother, Maureen, had wanted him to take along. She is excited and apprehensive about the trip, he said.
Tim Verboom cycled from the family’s hometown of Ajax, Ont. to Ground Zero in New York City in 2001 in response to the terrorist attacks, to raise funds for the Red Cross.
Ben was just 12 and the family followed Tim by vehicle. Just a few years later, he would be gone.
Ben doesn’t want other families to go through what his has.
“With mental illness, it doesn’t have to end in suicide,” Ben said.
“There is a huge stigma with mental illness, and a larger one with suicide. We have to see it as a chemical imbalance rather than socially marginalizing.”
Geoff Chaulk, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Newfoundland Division, said attitudes towards mental illness are getting better, but there’s still a ways to go.
“There’s been some work done in the country. What this young man is doing is the right approach to take – when people talk about their individual stories to erode some of the negativity and stigma that surrounds suicide and what might have led up to that,” Chaulk said.
“It’s a commendable effort on his part.”
Statistics released in 2008 show Newfoundland and Labrador has one of the lowest suicide rates in Canada. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry published a comparison showing from 1997 to 2001, 186 males and 39 females in the province committed suicide.
But Labrador has a rate more than three times as high as the island portion of the province.
Ben wants to make sure people get treatment for their depression.
“There’s so much social pressure to not be that way,” Ben said.
Although his father was on antidepressants, the illness wasn’t widely talked about in the family.
“We’re still kind of coping with it,” he said of his father’s death.
“You start to question your role in what happened and how you can prevent it.”
Ben has never been to the East Coast before, but the physical education and health student at the University of Toronto conditioned for the trip by cycling and running.
A hotel chain has donated accommodations along the way and Ben is on his own on the trek, but is keeping in touch with family and friends by cellphone. He also packed camping gear.
He timed the trip in between school terms.
“Nine thousand kilometres in 90 days,” he said.
Any money he raises will be given to Canadian organizations that support suicide awareness.
For more information, his website is cycletohelp.org. Supporters are maintaining the site. He also has a Facebook page Cycle to Help: For Suicide Awareness.
So far he’s received messages from lots of strangers across Canada thanking him.
“That’s what gets you through,” he said, before taking off.