Ajax man helps stomp the stigma about mental health issues
DURHAM — For years, shame and fear led Ajax’s Ben Verboom to inadvertently contribute to the stigma surrounding mental illness.
A graduate of Archbishop Denis O’Connor Catholic High School, Mr. Verboom grew up with two loving parents and siblings, but that all changed when, in Grade 9, he came home from school to find police cars waiting.
“I had no idea why they were there,” Mr. Verboom said to an audience of Durham high school students attending a Stomping Out Stigma summit recently.
The event is held annually at Whitby’s Ontario Shores mental health centre in partnership with the Talking About Mental Illness Coalition of Durham. Its intent is to raise awareness and stomp out the stigma surrounding mental illness.
For Mr. Verboom, it was the suicide of his father that brought the police to his house that day. His father had been found dead in a car with a bullet in his head which was almost certainly self-inflicted, Mr. Verboom said.
“The loss and grief and anger associated with losing a young parent is one thing,” he said.
But add to that the confusion of it being caused by suicide and he didn’t know what to do, he said.
For five years he stayed silent about it — his friends knew his dad had died but didn’t know it was by suicide.
“I later learned he suffered from depressions for years — I didn’t know this,” he said.
Now aged 20 and in his third year at the University of Toronto, Mr. Verboom has been exposed to courses about mental illness and met others affected. He’s discovered how prevalent it is but one of the things that stopped him from talking about it sooner was the stigma attached.
“I have never experienced suicidal feelings,” Mr. Verboom said. “I really had trouble trying to relate to people who have suicidal tendencies or depression; I still do.”
To help alleviate some of that stigma, he followed in his father’s bike tracks this past summer and hit the road in a Cycle to Help for suicide awareness.
Cycling was an activity the two had shared together. In 2001, his father Tim Verboom even rode his bike to New York to raise money for the Red Cross following 9/11.
For Mr. Verboom’s campaign, he rode from Newfoundland to British Columbia — about 8,000 kilometres — in just 89 days on the bike his dad rode to New York. He also went public with everything surrounding his father’s death.
“I’ll always be a little bit confused about it and (have) unanswered questions no one but him could answer … but it has been a healing process talking about it,” he said following his speech.
“For years I was contributing to the stigma because I was afraid and ashamed to talk about it,” he said.
By approaching the subject with compassion, he’s hoping to help people be more understanding and prevent more people from committing suicide.
“No shame and that’s how we’re going to decrease the stigma,” he added.
For his efforts, Mr. Verboom received the TAMI’s Barb Hiff Memorial Bursary for $500, created in honour of the late member.
In tears, her daughter Danielle Wilson embraced Mr. Verboom following his speech.
“I just want to say thank you,” Ms. Wilson said. “My mother would be so honoured the first award went to someone like you.”
Ms. Wilson has bipolar and has often felt the impact of the stigma associated with mental illness.
High school students who participated in the summit received a tool kit to help them organize events of their own to help stomp out stigma and increase awareness in their school.
For more information about Mr. Verboom or his Cycle to Help, visit www.cycletohelp.org