Abbotsford’ s Erica Schmidt, 59, went missing on Oct. 5, launching the city’s largest volunteer effort to locate a missing person. As the weeks passed, details emerged about the struggle the beloved mom and wife had with depression. When her body was found Jan. 1 in a heavy brush area off Whatcom Road, it was revealed that Erica had taken her own life. Soon after, her husband Henry publicly shared Erica’s story, resulting in a further outpouring of community support and messages from many who said they had faced similar struggles in their own lives. This is a special Abbotsford News report on depression/suicide.
A ‘dark and heavy’ world
It was 5 a.m. and Mark Henter was having trouble sleeping, so he flipped through the channels on TV.
He came across a show where people were dancing. They looked carefree, happy and uninhibited.
Mark couldn’t fathom those kinds of emotions and he wondered how anyone could let loose like that.
His world was dark and heavy, as if he always had a truck tied to his back. Everything felt dim and lifeless, and it was a struggle to get from one minute to the next.
Mark destroyed relationships and hated himself, while desperately desiring acceptance.
At 25, this feeling had pervaded his being for many years, in combination with periods of wild, reckless behaviour.
Major depression had set in when he was about 16. Mark had been sexually abused – by more than one person – starting at around age 12. He didn’t tell anyone for a long time.
He missed so much school that he failed Grade 9 three times. He drank and smoked and stole things.
In 1979, when Mark was 17, he lost his only sibling – his 23-year-old brother – and a year later he made his first suicide attempt, coming close to succeeding.
His rage exploded at inexplicable moments and without warning. At other times, he would come home from having an otherwise good day and burst into tears.
At 19, he woke up in the hospital with no memory of what he had done or how he got there.
Mark was placed in the psychiatric ward, but he felt ashamed, embarrassed and weak. He was placed on anti-depressants, but they made him sleepy so he stopped taking them.
He decided he merely needed to “pull up his bootstraps” and get his life together.
He met his wife to be not long after, but his behaviours continued. He had a fierce temper that would unleash itself with no warning.
Periods of depression would last for months, and he would stay in bed, unable to work or socialize.
Sometimes, it was the opposite extreme – his head was full of wild notions, such as business ideas that never transpired, costing him, his wife and his father much money. One of his bosses once told him that when he was up, he did the work of six people.
In his mid-20s, Mark made another attempt at his life, but it wasn’t serious enough to require hospitalization.
He began taking anti-depressants on a more consistent basis, and experienced longer periods of stability, but his crashes came hard and fast.
One of these occurred in 2002. At 40, Mark had been feeling upbeat about life for several days, but within an hour of returning home one day, he took an inexplicable turn into darkness.
He consumed a combination of drugs and alcohol, got into his vehicle, and set out to intentionally crash.
He changed his mind and called his wife, but his phone went dead. It’s unclear what happened next, but witnesses say he drove away, went over a large rock, crossed a median and crashed into a gas station.
Fortunately, nobody else was harmed. Mark has almost no memory of the event.
He was again admitted to the psychiatric ward and, after a brief period of resistance (resulting in a struggle with hospital security), decided he needed to take treatment seriously.
He had been diagnosed not long before with bipolar disorder – characterized by episodes of severe depression interspersed with manic periods – and attention deficit disorder.
He decided to endure the initial side effects of his medications, and he began therapy to deal with his painful past.
Mark learned that this condition had a genetic component – his dad had also suffered from depression – which was aggravated by the turmoil he had faced in his life.
He began opening up to others, including his wife, who was also able to share with him how his behaviour had impacted her over the years. Sadly, she died of cancer in December 2005, but Mark felt fortunate that they had a period of peace before her passing.
He still experiences the occasional “slump,” but now knows strategies to cope.
“You need to keep reaching out and not believing that voice that says, ‘It doesn’t matter’ because it always matters … I tell myself, ‘The storm always passes.’ ”
Mark now shares his story in hopes that it will help others speak more openly about their own struggles with depression and other mental illnesses, and seek the support they need.
He organized the volunteer search efforts and the “Help Find Erica!” Facebook page when Erica Schmidt went missing in October. He continued to provide online updates after Erica’s body was found on Jan. 1 and it was confirmed that she had taken her own life.
That page remains active, with people remembering Erica, posting messages of hope and sharing their own stories. Mark wants to continue to provide an avenue for people to discuss their struggles.
“I’m almost on a crusade now … There are so many people hiding, and I don’t want this (mental illness) to be something that gets swept under the carpet,” he says. “Why should we hide when everybody else is ‘coming out’? It’s not our fault.”
Mark established a blog called Mark’s Wanderings (http://www.markswanderings/wordpress.com) where he has begun posting his own story, that of Erica, and helpful articles for those struggling with mental illness.
‘Down, but not out’
Margert Tomkinson awoke one day and screamed when she saw the strange man in her room.
She didn’t know where she was or how she got there.
The shocked and startled man explained that he was her husband and that she was home in bed, but Margert didn’t recognize him or understand what was happening.
She was soon diagnosed with having had a major heart attack and stroke, the latter of which damaged the portion of her brain that affects memory.
Then 50, Margert had no recollection of the previous five decades, including her childhood, wedding day, marriage, career as a cook, or her two daughters or six grandchildren.
She has spent the last 10 years building new memories and getting to know her husband of 40 years – and the rest of her family – all over again.
Margert has also faced another challenge – struggling with depression and learning how to cope with it.
The condition could have been triggered by bio-chemical changes in her brain due to the stroke or it could be situational, but the cause isn’t important to Margert – the treatment is.
She spent long periods during which she’d refuse to leave her bedroom because she felt nothing but doom.
“I cried all the time … Inside, it was like being in a tunnel where you can see the light, but it’s like a pin of light and you can’t get to it.”
Margert’s mind was also consumed with voices that she could never seem to quiet. She likened it to a never-ending party, but the voices were hostile, telling her she was worthless, ugly, fat and a terrible mother. Mentally, she tumbled down a deeper and deeper hole.
Simple things like getting dressed were a struggle. There was no point in getting on with the day.
Mental health workers recognized her symptoms, saying they thought she might need an anti-depressant, and encouraged her to go to her doctor.
The medication quieted the voices in her head, but it took about a year for Margert to feel more balanced. She was also referred to a psychiatrist and to support groups and other programs.
She learned strategies for dealing with the days when depression was taking over.
Now, rather than succumb to the desire to stay in bed on a bad day, she forces herself to get up and move. She lets others know that she might be having a difficult day and that she might need some time to herself, but she doesn’t let it overwhelm her.
“I tell my depression, ‘No, you can’t have me. I won’t let you.’ ”
Margert also copes with the occasional manic episode, which led to her cutting off so much of her hair she had to shave off the rest and grow it back.
But she finds much strength in the support she receives from her husband, Randy, and through organizations such as the Creative Center Society, which runs Abby House in Abbotsford, which Margert visits four or five days a week.
Margert now helps others going through similar struggles by facilitating support groups and programs.
“I may be down, but I’m not out,” she laughs.
Treatment through thoughts
People often want to focus on what causes depression, but it’s not that easy to pinpoint, says a community mental health nurse.
The causes can be multi-faceted, says Cathy Tessarolo, who is based out of Abbotsford Mental Health (AMH) and has been working in the area of depression/suicide for almost 20 years.
Contributors to depression can include major life events, isolation, trauma, family history, substance use and physical ailments.
Tessarolo said AMH helps clients focus on how to cope with their depression through strategies such as “cognitive behavioural therapy” – looking at the connection between thinking, emotions and behaviour.
“We work on changing behaviours through goal-setting … and how to overcome negative thinking patterns,” she said.
AMH is the main point of contact for adults experiencing mental health difficulties. (Situations involving children are handled by Child and Youth Mental Health.)
People are referred to the agency by their doctor or others, or they call on their own.
Tessarolo said AMH has handled as many as 200 referrals a month.
A screening is done to determine an individual’s suitability for services. In some cases, such as when a person is suicidal, a case manager is assigned for a brief one-on-one meeting and possibly psychiatric consultation.
In other situations, a 10-week group therapy program, which can sometimes have a waiting list of up to three months, is more appropriate. A rapid-access group is available for more immediate support.
AMH clinicians consult with the family doctor whenever possible.
In assessing whether someone has major depression, Tessarolo said several factors are considered.
These include whether the depression has existed at least two weeks, combined with issues such as changes in eating or sleeping habits, a loss of energy, a lack of interest in regular activities, foggy thinking, and missing work or school.
Tessarolo believes more people are seeking help for their personal situations, but there is still a stigma about depression and other mental illnesses.
“People feel ashamed … There’s a lot of guilt and shame about it … A lot of people just don’t understand. My clients will say that people will say, ‘What do you have to be depressed about?’ ”
She encourages anyone who believes they might be experiencing depression (or other issues) to call the Abbotsford Mental Health office at 604-870-7800.
• Twenty per cent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime.
• Approximately eight per cent of adults will experience major depression at some time in their lives.
• About one per cent of Canadians will experience bipolar disorder (manic depression).
• Suicide accounts for 24 per cent of all deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds and 16 per cent among 25- to 44-year-olds; 4,000 people die each year by suicide.
• A complex interplay of genetic, biological, personality and environmental factors causes mental illnesses.
• Almost half of those who feel they have suffered from depression or anxiety have never gone to a doctor about this problem.
• Once depression is recognized, help can make a difference for 80 per cent of people who are affected.
Source: Canadian Mental Health Association (www.cmha.ca)
Who can help
* Abbotsford Mental Health (19 years and older): 604-870-7800
• Mission Mental Health: 604-814-5600
• Child and Youth Mental Health (under 19 years old): 604-870-5880
• Telecare Crisis and Caring Line: 604-852-9099 in Abbotsford/Mission or 1-888-852-9099 throughout B.C.
• Living Room: Faith-based drop-in support group for people struggling with anxiety, bipolar and depression. Meets first and third Fridays of each month at 1 p.m. at New Life Church, 35270 DeLair Rd.
• Mood Disorders Association: Support group for those with depression, bipolar, anxiety and panic attacks. Meets first and third Thursdays of each month at 7 p.m. at Abbotsford Community Services, 2420 Montrose Ave. Call Christine at 604-854-9404 for information.
• B.C. Schizophrenia Society: Located at 2615 Montrose Ave. in Abbotsford. Provides resources and support for people with a serious mental illness and for their families. Visit bcss.org, call 604-859-0105 or email email@example.com.
• Creative Center Society: Supports people with a severe and persistent mental illness. Runs Abby House at 2676 Gladys Ave. 604-850-1168