Bill Werthmann introduced his final song on stage at The Slice Bar & Grill, a pub in Lethbridge, Alta. He stretched his hands, trying to regain some of the dexterity he’d lost to numbness over the past 13 days. For almost two weeks, he’d been hunched over on his bicycle, as he rode from Victoria, B.C., en route to St. John’s, N.L. His guitar rested on his Santa-esque belly; by his own admission, he’s not your stereotypical cyclist. This also wasn’t a regular concert; it was a chance for him to start a conversation with the packed venue about mental health and suicide.
With eyes glazed, he stared into the crowd. After a long pause, he spoke into the microphone, “So, Hillary, this one’s for you.”
Hillary Rose Werthmann was Bill’s daughter. She passed away 10 years ago, from an overdose of pills at the age of 20. Described by her family as funny, loving and smart, Hillary donated both time and money to Edmonton’s Hope Mission. But she was also a competitive player at the Nintendo game, Super Mario Bros, and would press her three older siblings’ buttons by playing her “baby of the family” card with their parents.
Although her family knew she was on anti-depressants, they didn’t realize how much she was struggling until May 8, 2003.
It took Bill eight years to say out loud that it was suicide that took his daughter’s life. It was eight years before he really started to heal. As he began to heal, he found the desire for something good to come from Hillary’s death. In 2011, Hillary’s Ride for Mental Health was hatched.
His idea was simple: In Hillary’s name, he would try to reduce the stigma around youth mental health and suicide – a stigma that stops people from seeking help. To create a buzz, he set a huge personal challenge: Cycling across Canada with some friends.
Along the way he imagined holding a string of concerts with some of Canada’s best-known folk musicians, including Juno award winners Lynn Miles, David Francey and Stephen Fearing – artists Bill had come to know as the president of Edmonton’s Northern Lights Folk Club. Then, with the audience engaged, they could start a conversation about mental health, letting people know there was no shame in seeking help. They would even highlight some local, grassroots, mental-health charities.
His friends and family loved the idea. Within months, a board was assembled and a society was registered. The wheels started spinning.
Sue Sohnle was a season-ticket holder to the Northern Lights Folk Club for about three years when, at one event, Bill announced on stage his intention to cycle across Canada.
“I jumped on it right away,” says Sohnle, recalling her excitement as she rushed up at the end of the concert, declaring, “I want to do this. I’m in!” An experienced touring cyclist, Sohnle had always dreamed of bicycling across Canada, but there was another reason she connected with the ride – she suffers from depression.
After trying numerous times to pull herself out of her lows, she went to her doctor, ashamed that she was admitting her need for help. It’s a shame she will never again endure. “I just want people to know that you can do a lot of things if you can admit, get help and go forward and talk to somebody,” she says.
Spring thaw came late this year, forcing the cyclists to go indoors for their training. As they were boxed inside, pedalling for kilometres without once moving, the rest of the organization’s board was raising funds to get the riders across Canada.
One of those efforts was a concert, held at the Abby Road housing co-op on Whyte Avenue. Pamphlets listing some key mental health statistics from the Canadian Mental Health Association were available to the sold-out room:
Suicide kills more Albertans than traffic accidents.
For youth aged between 15 and 24, suicide is the second highest cause of death after accidents.
One in five Canadians will have a mental illness at some point in his or her life.
Every Canadian is indirectly impacted by mental illness.
I sat at the back of the room, attending because mental illness has impacted my life – Hillary would have been my sister-in-law – when I noticed someone pointing out one of these statistics to a friend. The friend shook her head in disbelief.
As the musicians played on, the spring sunshine broke through the window. Someone quietly got up, shut the blinds and sat back down in time to tap a foot along with the music.
Ten years to the day that Hillary died, on May 8, 2013, Bill, Sohnle and Terry Fannon, an addictions counsellor who rounded out the team of cyclists, filled up on a pancake breakfast at Mile 0 in Victoria. Family and well-wishers, including musicians Valdy and Roy Forbes, who played at the kick-off concert the night before, were there. The riders ceremonially dipped their bike tires in the Pacific Ocean and tearfully departed for their 67-day bike tour across Canada.
At the end of the second day, an old knee injury of Bill’s resurfaced, forcing him to rest in the support vehicle the next day. “It was probably my lowest point of the trip,” he recalls. It took him a few days to accept that he wasn’t going to to ride every kilometre, but he knew their message, and their tight timeline of events, was more important than his pride.
As they rolled out of the mountains, the team expected to be blown across the prairies by the prevailing tailwind. That wind never came. Instead, gusts blasted them head-on for days. At its worst, near Moose Jaw, Sask., they rode a scant 4.3 km in 45 minutes – five times less ground than they might have covered with a decent tailwind. In desperation, they shuttled ahead in the support vehicle, and rode the rest of the day backwards, with the wind.
But for every challenge they faced, they were lifted by innumerable conversations that helped reduce the stigma around suicide and mental health. These conversations happened on the stages, as musicians opened up about their mental health struggles. And, time after time, conversations started right on the sides of the roads, as the riders wound their way across the country.
For many people, it was the first time that they shared their mental-health stories. The riders knew not to judge.
“All I will do is try and be there for anybody who has to go through it. Talk with them. Cry,” said Bill at the time.
The conversations aren’t only with people afflicted with a mental illness. They are also with those who, like Bill, have lost a loved one to suicide.
Terri Bailey, supervisor of the Suicide Awareness Programs of the Support Network in Edmonton, says that the bereavement process for those who survive a suicide loss can be especially hard. “If there is a stigma attached to how the person died, then sometimes it stops people from talking about their feelings around it,” says Bailey.
She explains that restorative retelling, or the process of talking through a loss, is part of most people’s grief. But for cases of suicide, those left behind end up questioning self-worth, having spiritual doubt, feeling guilt, abandonment or fear. So the retelling and consequent healing can be impossible to accomplish if there is no safe place to do it.
When they reach the Atlantic Ocean after more than 6,700 kilometres, a dozen events and countless conversations, they baptize their worn bike tires in the water. Bill’s grand idea had actually happened. He’d been able to get Canadians to open their shutters and talk about youth mental health and suicide in public.
“I would do anything to have her back, anything. But, the reality, is I can’t,” Bill says about his daughter. “So all I can do is give somebody else hope that they will have their children.”
The ride was also for Bill Werthmann. For his health, so he can see his grandchildren grow up – and for his need for something good to come out of his daughter’s death.
If you need help, or you are concerned about someone, then reach out to these 24-hour distress lines:
Crisis Support Centre: 780-482-HELP (4357)
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868
The Crisis Support Centre, a program of the Support Network, also offers some online assistance at crisissupportcentre.com. For Scott Lister, director of finance and fundraising, raising the funds to enable this online service to be available 24 hours a day is a significant priority.
Lister also feels that awareness of their services is key. “If people know we’re there, the theory is they’ll use us.”
For the Kids Help Phone’s Sherrie Cameron, manager of Community Fundraising and Corporate Development Northern Alberta, community awareness already exists thanks to TV commercials and chocolate-bar wrappers. And the organization has done a good job of conveying the message that the service is confidential – in a recent study of their services, 75 per cent of clients said they contacted the help phone because of guaranteed anonymity. “We are 100 per cent anonymous. It’s not on a phone bill, there’s no tracking of an IP address. It’s not going to land back with your parents or school,” says Cameron.