Canada was playing the United States in the gold medal game in Vancouver. When Sidney Crosby shot the spellbinding winning goal seven minutes and 40 seconds into overtime, Jack Windeler, an 18-year-old with an easygoing manner and supersharp mind, was jubilant. "He was high-fiving everyone and was so happy," says his father, Eric Windeler. "Jack was overjoyed when they won."
And then it was time for Jack to leave his parents, brother and sister, and catch a bus back to Kingston, Ont., where he was a first-year student at Queen's University. With his parents and their dog, Taffy, he walked to the subway station at Yonge and St. Clair. "I hugged him and Sandra hugged him," Eric says. "And we told him we loved him, just like we normally did, as we sent him off."
On a Saturday morning one month later, the police phoned. They were sending an officer over right away. "We went into three minutes of the most amazing panic you can imagine," Eric says, his voice beginning to break. "Jack was the only one unaccounted for."
A police cruiser pulled up, and the officer delivered shattering news. Jack, their firstborn child and a sweet, cerebral young man with unbounded promise, had died in his residence room. It was suicide.
Discovering Jack's hidden depression
Even in the cruelest, most cutting moments of grief and shock, it didn't occur to Eric and his wife, Sandra, to hide the truth about what had happened. The day after the suicide, Sandra sat at her computer and achingly, lovingly prepared Jack William Hanington Windeler's obituary for The Globe and Mail. "We lost Jack on March 27, 2010," she wrote, "when his first year at university became too much for him and he sought peace instead."
Jack left a rambling handwritten note on two pages of lined paper. The family realized he had been hiding a depression so severe it had crushed his will to live. For some reason, he felt like he couldn't reach out for help. "Jack hid his pain from us," Eric says, "likely afraid or embarrassed to speak about it."
Page 1 of 6 – Find out what Jack's parents' next steps were on page 2.
Jack's last thoughts
The note made something else clear. In his last hours, and through his darkest despair, Jack thought about other people. "He didn't want a fuss to be made," Eric explains. "He didn't want a big, religious, fancy service. He basically just said ‘Use the money to help others.' He was thinking of children, youth."
At the funeral in a downtown Toronto church, the couple found the strength to speak to 300 people. Sandra talked about Jack's intelligence, wickedly dry sense of humour, love of rowing and passion for the Beatles, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin. She remembered sweet summer days at the family's cottage in a Nova Scotia fishing village – and childhood dory rides spent singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" with his grandfather. "We had a beautiful week together at Christmas, in Whistler, skiing," she told the crowd. "We were together the whole time."
And there was something else, something powerful and hard to forget. Through the agony of eulogizing their own son, Sandra and Eric vowed to turn their tragedy into an opportunity to do some good. "For Jack, we must let it be," Eric said, trembling. "But for others, we will not let it be."
Eric meant those words. Within weeks of his son's death, he was on a mission to help young people – he calls them "emerging adults" – to achieve and sustain good mental health. He has taken an indefinite leave of absence from his work; the cause is a full-time job. It's a crusade that comes from the heart. "I didn't feel like I had any other option," he says. "It's what I think about in the middle of the night, and it's what I think about when I wake up."
Spreading the message: The Jack Windeler Memorial Fund
In April of last year, Eric set up the Jack Windeler Memorial Fund. In months of pounding the pavement, meeting with potential donors, learning about mental illness and sharing Jack's story, he has raised more than $600,000. "He is a remarkable person," says Eric's wife, Sandra Hanington. "He has tremendous integrity. He's warm and likeable, so people warm up to him in a heartbeat. He's a natural-born leader, so people want to follow him."
Page 2 of 6 – Discover what The Jack Project is and read more of this touching story on page 3.
With his truckload of charisma, contacts and business savvy, Eric quickly found help in high places. He formed partnerships with Kids Help Phone, which now administers the Jack Windeler Memorial Fund, and the Mental Health Commission of Canada. "I saw him as somebody who is transforming his grief and personal tragedy into meaning that would make a difference," says Sharon Wood, CEO of Kids Help Phone. "That was very courageous."
The Jack Project
The Jack Project, as it's been known since last fall, aims to enable all youth in Canada (ages 15 to 20) to achieve and sustain optimal mental wellness. During the 2011 to 2012 academic year, Eric is leading a pilot project in 22 high schools and 12 postsecondary institutions in Ontario. He'll find out what kinds of programs and plans each school has in place for mental health, and there will be workshops for students, parents and teachers. The goal is to expand the program to 300 high schools and 30 colleges and universities across the country during the 2012 to 2013 school year.
One in five Canadians will experience mental illness, says the Canadian Mental Health Association, and in most cases, the symptoms set in during adolescence or young adulthood. According to Statistics Canada, in a typical year, at least 180 Canadian teens between the ages of 15 and 19 die by suicide.
For Eric, it's critical to bring his mental health message to kids on the cusp of high school and adulthood. He wants them to know what to do if they need help – and how to recognize the signs of mental illness in friends. "It's a particularly stressful time when they're away from home for the first time," he says. "All kinds of hormones, drugs, alcohol, sexual opportunity – everything is coming at these kids all at once. We're sending our kids away without preparation."
The Jack Project will also use technology to reach young people. Kids Help Phone already helps youth across Canada more than 4,300 times a week via telephone and web posts, with almost 30 per cent of those contacts relating to mental health struggles. But thanks in part to the Jack Windeler Memorial Fund, Kids Help Phone will pilot and launch live chat via computer and mobile devices as a new way to reach professional counsellors.
Page 3 of 6 – Eric describes visiting Jack's dorm room, looking for answers on page 4.
Looking for answers
"For me, this is not about saving Canadian youth," Sandra says. "This is about saving the next Jack, or the next girl. I'm a mother, and it's one child at a time." Ten days after his son died, Eric Windeler was standing outside Jack's dorm room at Queen's, taking a picture of the collage of letters, pictures and origami that students had taped to the door. When he felt ready to go inside, he was immersed in symbols of his son. "It was surreal," he says, hesitating with emotion. "It was like he was just there. It was a mess, but there was just a normal teenage messy room."
Jack's textbooks looked like they had never been touched. His sci-fi novels, on the other hand, were worn and dog-eared. Desperate to understand how his son had fallen through the cracks, Eric talked, listened and learned on campus. He found out there had, in fact, been changes in his behaviour. Jack had stopped going to classes, he didn't hand in assignments, he spent more time reading quietly and he usually kept his dorm room door closed. Still, no one guessed what was coming.
Trying to help young adults
In the summer of 2010, Eric sat in a stark room, sighed and looked into a video camera. With calm, evenly paced words, he talked about the tragedy. "Unfortunately, Jack's story is not uncommon," he said, his eyes tired and glistening. "Many young people reach a point in their lives where they feel stressed or pressured by what's happening. They don't know how to cope."
The result was a video, which begins with a clip of Jack and his brother Ben singing "Skinamarinky Dinky Dink" as kissable little preschoolers. The video is the centrepiece of Eric's mission to make people think, and the links have had more than 16,000 hits on YouTube.
Page 4 of 6 – Find out how Jack's story has changed the lives of others on page 5.
Already, Jack's story is changing young lives. Eric says that Queen's University, for instance, has been incredibly supportive, funding the initial video, training residence dons in Mental Health First Aid, and in joining The Jack Project pilot for this school year. Countless teens are connecting with Eric, in person and online. At one high school, a boy talked about how friends had pulled him in off a ledge. Sara, a third-year university student, emailed Eric to tell him how hearing about Jack inspired her to reach out when she was suffering from depression. "I'm starting to feel like I can talk to my friends and family now," she wrote. "Jack continues to have an enormous impact on my life, by the very fact that I am still here today."
These are the kinds of stories that give Eric Windeler goosebumps, the stories that ensure that Jack's life – and death – will always have meaning.
Reaching out to others
When Carol Cashen's 19-year-old son, Adam, jumped to his death from a Halifax bridge in the early morning hours one day four years ago, she desperately searched for help. But she found little.
Determined to support other families coping with teen suicide, Carol, a registered nurse, worked with mental health professionals in Halifax to produce a booklet called "Support After Youth Suicide." Carol says such a resource could have helped her cope with her unimaginable pain and confusion.
"What do you do when you get that terrible news? The main thing for me [in doing the booklet] was for families not to blame themselves and to be open and talk about it," she says. "When you're open, you can get more support."
Close to 20,000 copies of the booklet, which is dedicated to Adam's memory, have been distributed to the Chief Medical Examiner's Office, hospitals, police stations and schools across Nova Scotia. An online version is also available at teenmentalhealth.org. Carol, largely credited for opening dialogue about teen suicide in the province, also successfully lobbied the government to have suicide barriers installed on the Angus L. Macdonald Bridge, which crosses Halifax harbour. – Allison Lawlor
Page 5 of 6 – Discover five ways you can help someone who may be at risk of suicide on page 6.
Possible indicators of a mental health problem include:
• feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness or guilt, depressed mood or poor self-esteem;
• withdrawal from friends, family and activities they used to enjoy;
• changes in eating or sleeping patterns, feeling exhausted or tired all of the time;
• trouble concentrating, struggling in school, rapid drop in grades;
• restlessness, irritability, agitated or anxious movements or behaviour;
• heightened emotions or regular crying;
• neglect of personal care;
• reckless or impulsive behaviours;
• persistent physical symptoms such as headaches or chronic pain;
• thoughts or talking about death and suicide.
5 ways you can help someone
1. Listen without judging. Ask what is happening, how the person is feeling, and what they are doing. Invite them to talk to other people in their lives: Keeping someone safe is
a task for many.
2. Ask if they are thinking of hurting or killing themselves. Using the words will not cause them to think or do anything to harm themselves. Do not promise to keep the information to yourself. It is better to have someone alive who may be mad at you, than the memory of someone who is not.
3. Ask them what they can do to relieve the sadness or pain. What works for them? Help them take action. Encourage them to do it or do it with them.
4. Contact a crisis service, or talk to their parents, friends or siblings. Talk to the person's family doctor. Ask for help in helping them.
5. Get a friend or family member to a hospital emergency department immediately if they seem to be in imminent risk of harming themselves. Go even if they only have a plan in place and the means to follow through. If they refuse, you may need to call 911. Stay with them.
| This story was originally titled "Youth at Risk" in the October 2011 issue. |
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