The Family He Left Behind: Matt's Story

When we hear about suicide, we immediately think about that person and the hardships they had to endure. We try to imagine how they must have felt. But sometimes we don’t think about those they left behind. What about their family and friends?

Losing a loved one by any means is devastating. For someone who has lost a loved one to suicide, that devastation runs deep. Quinn is a loving sister who lost her 23 year old brother Matt in November 2014 to suicide. Often described as a “true friend”, Matt made a constant effort to care for those he knew and the people he met.
Can you tell us a little bit about who Matt was as a person?

He was a very sensitive, extremely loving and compassionate person. You have never met somebody who has so many people consider him their “best friend”. He was a family guy, always looking after us, and so incredibly protective of those closest to him. Matt was also an animal lover- rescuing any animal in need of a home. He was a sports fanatic, a trendy art connoisseur, an entrepreneur. Was witty and always enjoyed a good joke or prank—making people laugh was one of his many strengths. I don't think I have ever known someone as charismatic as he was. Matt could befriend anyone, whether it was a customer at the restaurant he worked in, the cashier at the corner store, or the mailman. He genuinely loved talking to people and learning about who they were. Matt completed our family of six.

Did you or any of your family members notice any signs of him struggling with mental health ?

Growing up, Matt had his struggles, like any other young person. When he was in early elementary school he was diagnosed early on with a learning disability. In a family of four children, where only one outwardly struggles with a diagnosed disability, this can be extremely challenging. However, my parents were always very supportive of him, we all were. We’re an extremely close family.

He was never a fan of taking pharmaceutical medication; he had tried every possible option, starting from a young age. Instead he attempted to find a balance through self-medication using marijuana. He assured us that it helped him; made him more energized, productive, motivated and successful - and he was right.

It was around the university stage that we began to notice small changes in his behavior and his marijuana use had turned into dependence. Even so, there were never any red flags that made us question if he was struggling with a mental illness. Certainly no one ever considered the thought of suicide.

It was during the last two months of his life that we really did notice a significant change. His mood swings were more drastic, and he started to drink alcohol which was never something he did in his past- even through university. There were times where he would get incredibly angry and frustrated with himself and the people he was closest with, but not long afterwards he would feel normal again. We were not prepared for what was to come.

After experiencing an incredibly shocking and terrifying episode of psychosis in early September 2014, he had hit what we all thought was rock bottom. We had never seen him in that state; his behavior was unrecognizable, making us all realize that something had gone terribly wrong. At that point in time, we didn’t know what psychosis was. We had never experienced anything of its kind, and the doctors in the emergency department couldn’t explain what was happening. They brushed it off as an angry outburst from a 23 year old. They sent us home as if there was nothing they could do to help, as if he didn’t deserve medical attention.

Matt made the decision to go back to his psychologist and psychiatrist who he had been working with for years and revisit the option of medication and therapy. He was extremely self-aware and he knew he needed to do something about this shift in his mood and behavior - it scared him. He wanted to change, made the effort to get help and we thought it was a good sign. We never imagined how drastically our lives would change just six weeks later.

What was it like for you when you found out, how were you feeling?

Matt’s death was a huge shock, completely surreal. Even now, the thought of it sucks the air out of me. Not only for me but for everyone who knew Matt. This rocked an entire community. No one could believe this had happened to him, especially his doctors. No one saw this coming.

I was with Matt the hour before it happened. We were on our regular weekend dog walk, a mild Sunday afternoon. Everything seemed normal, nothing seemed off with him. Matt and I were really close, just two years apart, he knew he could talk to me about anything — he really confided in me when he was having a hard time, as I did with him. I have gone over that walk in my head countless times, wondering if I missed something, but it just doesn’t make sense. His suicide was an impulsive act, I know that. He was not able to think of the repercussions this would have on everyone who loved him - Matt would have never gone through with it if he had. He was not in his right mind. The darkness in his mind had taken over and in an instant it had won the battle.

I am heartbroken and I am still in disbelief. It’s been over a year and I still have to pinch myself and think that this is my reality and not just a horrible never ending nightmare. My family lives with his loss every day of our lives. We have so many unanswered questions; there is a lot of pain.

Do you feel like he didn’t want you guys to worry about him? He didn’t want to seem weak by telling you about what he was going through?

He was the eldest boy in the family and always felt this need to protect people and to take care of his loved ones. His instinct was to help others, not to help himself. I don’t think he ever wanted to admit that he needed professional help and couldn’t fight his inner battles alone. The system had failed him before, so who could blame him for not wanting to turn to professionals. I truly believe he was in denial when it came to the severity of his illness and how long he had been living with it.

How do you feel the health care system treated your brother's situation?

I am incredibly disheartened by the way my family and my brother were treated when he was admitted for his psychosis episode in September at a local Toronto hospital. This was a clear cry for help — a vulnerable time for all of us, but no one was able to give us the resources or help we needed. To be honest, we’re still looking to this hospital to give us the clarity that we so desperately need, and owe to Matt.

We were turned away to deal with matters on our own, with nothing but a 1-800 help line number. When an individual is in crisis, they need help immediately and any healthcare professional to let someone in that state of mind leave their care without a solid plan, is just negligent. If Matt was about to have a heart attack that day, I doubt the hospital would have sent him off with a 1-800 number.

There was a major lack of communication between those working in the Emergency Department when Matt was first admitted. He fell through the cracks and managed to get lost. And by lost, discharged, with absolutely no plan for care. No correspondence with us, his family. Given the circumstances and Matt’s symptoms, he should have been held for 72 hours—the recommended time for a proper psychiatric assessment to be conducted. Instead Matt was sent home, alone, after a mere 12 hours. My family has poured over his medical charts from that day and night, trying to understand where things went so terribly wrong.

There was no attempt at communication with Matt’s family doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist.

There was absolutely no follow up made by the hospital to our family or GP. There were no plans for his care.

In the months following Matt’s death I’ve searched for answers and read every article, book or paper I could find about mental illness, psychosis, or suicide. The brain remains the most poorly understood organ in the human body and the answers are limited. The medical world needs to start looking at patients on a more holistic level. They need to understand that mental and physical health is fundamentally linked.  You can’t look at one without the other.

One of the things that was important for my family to do after Matt’s death was follow up with the hospital staff that was on duty during Matt’s psychosis admission to the Emergency room. We wanted to ensure that they were aware of the end result; just six weeks after letting him leave the hospital without following the proper protocol. We wanted their commitment to ensure this wouldn’t happen to another family. What we found shook us to the core: that team had no idea that Matt had died by suicide just one floor above their Emergency Room.

People are not comfortable talking about suicide unless they have been affected by it first-hand, why do you think that is?

Suicide is an uncomfortable topic for people—anything that we don’t have answers to is uncomfortable, particularly anything involving death.

Most people get very uncomfortable bringing my brother up in conversation. Usually this is out of the genuine fear of sparking any sadness or anger. The truth is, we want to talk about him and sometimes we even wish to talk about the tragedy that happened to him. We want to break the silence around suicide and those who fall victim to it. In most cases we are thinking of Matt even before you mention his name. He is and always will be a part of who we are. His memories are what live on through his family and friends—not the way he died.

Suicide is something that we have to address; it continues to happen every day. It can happen to anybody. Suicide is a result of an illness and it needs to be treated that way. No one chooses to be victim of an illness. No one chooses suicide. It chooses them.

How can we use Matt’s story to help others? What would you say to someone who is going through a hard time and doesn't want to burden his closest family and friends?

I want everyone to know that they don’t have to deal with their internal struggles alone, no one expects you to. Every person deserves help when they are in pain—whether that pain is mental or physical. It takes a brave soul to speak out and admit that you are not feeling yourself. It also takes a brave soul to ask a loved one if they need extra support to deal with their health.

Treatment is not easy; it can take a lot of attempts to find the right methods that work for you. We need to realize that there’s no quick fix and be patient with ourselves and others. Treatment is a commitment, your health is a commitment, and you owe it to yourself and the ones you love to find what works for you.

Access and cost can be huge barriers for people looking for treatment options. Many therapies are not covered by our government. I like to imagine a world where everyone would have a psychologist, just like everyone has a family doctor. There is no harm in working with someone who you can trust and respect to take time to process what is happening in your life. I believe everyone could benefit from identifying their major stresses and how to reduce them, what makes them happy, what they do for a healthy life balance.

What do you think the one thing you took away from this experience was?

I am a different person now—my whole family is. We are kinder people, more patient, more honest and less judgmental of others. We can truly value the important things in life, especially each other.

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