Manisha Krishnan

Joshua Beharry works to improve mental health on campus

Moments before he jumped off Vancouver’s Oak Street Bridge, Joshua Beharry texted his brother. He was hoping the message would be delayed—his brother had notoriously bad cell reception—but he wanted his family to know what had happened. Then, after waiting for a break in traffic, he leaped over the railing and into the Fraser River. “It was terrifying,” says Beharry, now 25. But even after jumping, he didn’t regret it. “I was thinking ‘this is the right thing to do.’ There was no chance of me ever getting better.”

Just over three years later, Beharry is speaking out about his suicide attempt in hopes that people like him will get help without feeling stigmatized.

He describes hitting the water as the most physically painful experience of his life. Overtaken by panic and survival instincts, he swam to a nearby platform underneath the bridge and began screaming for help. Luckily, his brother had received the text immediately and alerted police and their parents. Beharry was taken to the Intensive Care Unit at Vancouver General Hospital.

He suffered several broken ribs, fractured vertebrae, a punctured lung and contusions in his brain but he felt lucky to have survived. “I had a huge flood of emotions. I was happy to have my family there with me,” he says. It was the first time he’d felt positive in months.

Beharry’s decision to commit suicide came after a grueling struggle with depression that had started the previous summer. At first he was just more stressed out than usual, often dwelling over minor things like not being social enough. He was an A student, but unhappy with the computer science degree he was pursuing at the University of British Columbia. Gradually, he lost his appetite, had problems sleeping and made up excuses to not hang out with his friends.

“One night I just couldn’t sleep at all and I realized that my level of stress was way out of control,” he says. He told his parents what was going on and went to see his family doctor who prescribed low-dose antidepressants. With a counsellor he broke down his days into a series of small tasks—getting out of bed, taking a shower, picking out clothes.

Twenty-minute walks around the block exhausted him. All the while he was still taking two courses at UBC. Things improved marginally but by December they got bad again.

“I was pretty hopeless and beaten and each day I was struggling to make it through. It was just very much a grind,” he says. Thoughts of ending his life were never far from his mind. “If I was at the [commuter train] stop, I wouldn’t be able to not think about trying to kill myself.”

After the attempt, Beharry began the slow process of physical and mental recovery. He did rehabilitative therapy for his back, started seeing a psychiatrist, adjusted his medications and openly discussed his situation with friends. Near the end of the summer, he joined Kaleidoscope, a peer-led mental health support group at UBC. He found comfort in meeting others in his age group who had gone through similar experiences and started promoting the society around campus.

During UBC’s Mental Health Symposium in early 2011, Beharry and a few other students founded the Mental Health Network to foster better communication amongst different groups including the UBC’s student government, the Alma Mater Society (AMS), counsellors and Kaleidoscope. He graduated later that year while working as coordinator of the network and eventually went public with his story by speaking at post-secondary schools around Vancouver. Last month his story was published in The Ubyssey student newspaper. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

Beharry says things are improving, “but it’s a very slow meandering sort of improvement.”

The Mental Health Network recently received funding and staff support from the AMS that will ensure its survival and expansion. Beharry would like to see longer-term mental health assistance available on campus too. He says that more open discussion about suicide is needed.

Manisha Krishnan is an intern at Maclean’s. She previously worked at the Edmonton Journal and the North Shore News.  Follow her on Twitter @ManishaKrishnan.