Mental Health: A Father’s Nightmare

Jean is a broken man. He lost his son Michel to suicide at age 47. It’s a weighty pain – one too great for a father’s frail shoulders to bear.

Dominic Desmarais  Files Health, Mental Health

After numerous bouts with mental illness, Michel finally took his own life. He was afraid to be stigmatized by others. He refused all help. Jean went as far as he could to try and obtain help. He hopes that nobody will ever have to suffer the way that he has.

“My son wasn’t born with this,” Jean recalls. “He loved life.” Jean is close to tears. His son, a graduate of McGill University’s commerce program, was Jean’s pride and joy. Jean now feels empty. He constantly asks himself if he could have done something differently.

It all began 4 years before the suicide. Michel began to tell strange stories: people wanted to harm him. “He was different, weird,” Jean recalls. But the father did not want to label the son.

Help Offered

It wasn’t a lack of help that killed Michel. On the contrary: as an employee of a financial institution, Michel had ample access to therapy and sick leave. “I wanted him to talk to their human resources department. They offered him help. That worried him. He was afraid of being stigmatized. If he’d taken the help, his colleagues would have known he had a problem. He could have stayed home and still collected his salary.”

Confronted with his son’s refusal to accept assistance, Jean was pushed to the brink. He and his wife offered to pay for a course of therapy. Michel refused. Jean felt powerless. “What can a parent do? I told him I would always be proud of him, and that I’d still be proud of him if he accepted help. But he was not a child anymore. It was up to him to decide.”

Michel knew that his parents loved him unconditionally. He didn’t refuse their help to be mean. He wanted to do it all on his own. “He said, ‘Dad, just give me some time. I’m not ready yet. When I’m ready I’ll let you know.’ My son was a proud man. He didn’t want other people to know he had a problem.”

Michel talked about his issues with his parents, but refused to open up to his younger brother. “He didn’t want his brother to see him in that state,” Jean recalls, his eyes red.

At work, Michel was given 6 months to resolve the situation. When his employer couldn’t see any improvement, Michel was fired. Jean, who runs a family restaurant, offered to hire Michel. But Michel refused. Jean kept trying to convince his son to see a therapist. But the father respected his son’s decision. “Michel had stopped smoking and drinking coffee all on his own,” Jean recalls. “If mental illness wasn’t so stigmatized maybe he would have reached out for help.”

Suicide Attempts

Michel tried to commit suicide by leaping off the Jacques Cartier Bridge, which overlooks the fast-flowing Saint Lawrence River on Montreal’s South Shore. He was carrying a ladder on his back to get over the fence. Police didn’t believe his explanation for why he was carrying a ladder around, and he was taken to Notre Dame Hospital to be assessed. There, 3 psychiatrists talked to him and concluded that he was in a depressed state, but not suicidal

“They let him go that day,” Jean recalls. Later that day, Jean met his son. He had no doubt what Michel’s next move would be.

A week later, Michel jumped from the edge of a cliff in Mount Royal Park. Police found him and transported him to the Montreal General Hospital. He died several hours later.

Too Late

It was only after his son had died that Jean learned of both suicide attempts. At both hospitals, Michel had ordered doctors to not notify his family. “I don’t blame the doctors,” he says. “I talked to one of them. He said his job was to keep my son alive, not to communicate with me. He was right. But hospitals should have someone call the family. Michel was still alive, and my wife and I weren’t with him,” Jean sobs.

Jean is still in shock. He looks for reasons to justify this death that has torn him apart. He thinks laws should be more flexible on the question of notifying a patient’s family. And he believes that raising awareness of mental illness should be a societal priority: “We have to stop calling these people fools and nuts. I couldn’t save my own son. But if I can help save the life of someone’s son or daughter, of someone’s brother or sister, it would be wonderfully satisfying for me.”

Suicide Prevention Hotlines:

Québec: 1-866-APPELLE (277-3553).  CLSCs can also help you.
Canada: Canada Suicide Prevention Service 833-456-4566
U.S.: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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