It wasn’t obvious to Myrna Hutchison in February of 2013 that her son Steven had mental health issues and was struggling with thoughts of taking his own life.
“Our son didn’t open up and talk to anyone about the way he was feeling or that he was at the point where he was considering taking his life,” said Hutchison. “We sure wish that Steven would have realized how much love and support surrounded him.”
No one was aware of Steven’s condition until it was too late, and Hutchison is determined to do all she can to prevent another young person from suffering in silence. Within days of Steven’s death, the hashtag #GetInTouchForHutch was circulating on social media and a movement was started to break the silence and end the stigma associated with suicide and mental illness.
“Starting the conversation was our biggest and most important mandate,” said Hutchison. “That’s the advocacy work that we do, and I think we all have a big role to play as part of that. We need to learn to have difficult conversations and be okay being the recipient on the other end as someone who needs support as well.”
She was alarmed to discover that nearly a quarter of all deaths of people between the ages of 15 and 24 that year were suicides.
“It is very prevalent in that age group,” said Hutchison. “Before we lost Steven, we didn’t have the stats at our fingertips but once you go through it yourself and you start to learn that other families are going through this and friends and teammates are losing people to suicide, we knew we had to do something about it.”
Her efforts over the past eight years have inspired many others, including Centre Wellington Ward 4 councillor Neil Dunsmore, to do their part.
“Just the sheer volume of work Myrna does in the community raising awareness for the issue of mental health in our young people and suicide awareness in our young people,” said Dunsmore.
“She has taken a personal tragedy and she has tried to help others learn from it because she knows firsthand the pain that causes, and she just doesn’t want to see another family go through that.”
Dunsmore launched his own public awareness campaign in September 2020 called Steps to Stop the Silence during which he walked 531 km from the council offices in Elora to Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
“We raised $27,000 for local youth health initiatives,” said Dunsmore. “This year I raised another $25,000 from the sale of my book, Reflections in the Ripple, which is about the walk. I’ve got 500 of those books for sale and all the money goes to The Grove (The Grove Youth Wellness Hubs) in Centre Wellington to help with the youth projects.”
Dunsmore’s efforts led to the creation of the Neil Dunsmore Here4Hope Power of One Award that is presented each year on Sep 10, World Suicide Prevention Day, to “an individual in Wellington County whose actions have made a significant contribution to promoting life and preventing suicide.”
Here4Hope was established by the Canadian Mental Health Association of Waterloo-Wellington in the spring of 2019 and the award was presented this year to Myrna Hutchison.
“Myrna has shared her story but also herself with the community becoming an active leader and advocate for suicide prevention” said Cecilia Marie Roberts, Manager of Suicide Prevention Initiatives.
Hutchison accepted the award with characteristic modesty.
“It is definitely humbling to be recognized with something like the Power of One Award,” she said. “Just knowing all that Neil did as part of his campaign, the miles he travelled and the awareness he brought was beyond incredible. It definitely is my honour to be in the midst of so many incredible individuals all working towards a common goal”
Dunsmore was equally humbled to be associated with Hutchison.
“I couldn’t think of a more worthy person,” said Dunsmore. “She is promoting life and I said it once and I will say it again, ‘She is an angel that walks among us.’ You could have just as easily named this award The Myrna Hutchison Power of One Award. So, yah, a very, very worthy recipient and she is a great example for others in the community.”
Community fundraising efforts by the #GetInTouchForHutch organization have exceeded $300,000 and continue to rise.
“We are probably a little closer to $400,000,” said Hutchison. “We have done a number of activities and events including the annual 5k race on Canada Day weekend. We call it a race, but it is really more of a coming together event where we gather at the baseball diamond in Arthur and we have a speaker that shares their life experience. We haven’t been able to do that for the last few years due to COVID so, along with the race we have done online auctions and they have been really successful as well.”
Among their bigger projects is the Buddy Bench campaign, which is done in partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association of Waterloo-Wellington. Red benches have been placed on school playgrounds across the county to encourage kindness, empathy and inclusion.
“I always relate the story that you can be surrounded on the playground by hundreds of children and still feel very alone if you have no one to play with,” said Hutchison. “That’s where the kindness, inclusion and empathy come. We want to teach kids that everyone has a place out there.”
When necessary, Hutchison, and others from the #GetInTouchForHutch organization will direct those in need to frontline physicians and mental health professionals but the success of their campaigns demonstrate the level and value of community support.
“When I talk about our community it is so far reaching,” said Hutchison. “It was so obvious to us at Steven’s funeral when there were so many people there and sharing how they were connected to him. You don’t realize how much impact you have on the people you interact with day in and day out. We try to share that as much as we can. We always want people to know that they don’t have to go through whatever it is they are going through alone. There are people out there who care.”