'Don't give up': Edmonton man brings suicide prevention message to High Level Bridge

At least once a week, Ralphie Mendita walks the span of Edmonton’s High Level Bridge on a personal mission to provide hope to the hopeless this holiday season.

Holiday season can be a difficult time for people with mental health issues

Ralphie Mendita is trying to raise public awareness about the importance of suicide prevention. (Tanara McLean/CBC)

At least once a week, Ralphie Mendita walks the span of Edmonton's High Level Bridge on a personal mission to bring hope to the hopeless this holiday season.

He walks the length of the bridge with a sign that reads, "Don't Give Up."

"In the past year, four people that I know have been in crisis and been on that bridge contemplating ending it all," Mendita said, standing on the sidewalk with his collar up against biting wind.

"I'm going to bring hope to as many people as I can."

Despite the recent installation of safety barriers, the starkly beautiful bridge remains a draw for the desperate and distressed.

Mendita wants to save people who may be attracted to its darkened ledges while raising public awareness about the importance of suicide prevention.

"I'm trying to turn that bridge into a beacon of hope, not a beacon of hopelessness," Mendita said.

In the past few weeks, Mendita, 32, has been walking from his home in the west end to the bridge any chance he gets.

Mendita, who was born and raised in Edmonton, said the walks are helping him overcome a time he describes as his "lowest low."

It has been a difficult year for the former cage fighter who now works as a live-in housekeeper.

He was diagnosed with cataracts, suffered a detached retina and had to undergo numerous surgeries to correct his vision.

At one point, he lost his sight completely. For more than three weeks he could only see shadows and the helplessness he felt during those sightless moments continues to haunt him.

It was during those dark days he realized others might need help getting through the hard times, he said.

Mendita said he wants other people to know things will get better.

"I refuse to give up in times of my darkness and I'm a big superhero fan and superheros are made from adversity," he said.

"What I'm doing is based on something my father taught me when I was young which is, you can live for three weeks without food, three days without water, five minutes without air but not a moment without hope. And that's what I'm trying to do for people."

The hardest time of the year

People feeling overwhelmed this holiday season are not alone, said Mara Grunau, executive director of the Centre for Suicide Prevention, a not-for-profit education centre based in Calgary.

The holidays are supposed to be a season of joy and cheer, but for some people it can be the hardest time of the year.

Suicide rates do not generally spike over the holidays, Grunau said, but the demands of the season can aggravate existing mental health issues.

The financial and family needs of the holidays can be enormous stressors for someone already suffering from depression, anxiety or addictions issues.

Self-care is important, Grunau said.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, take time for yourself avoid triggers and establish clear boundaries with your loved ones, she said.

When feelings of anxiety start to affect daily life, it's time to reach out for help.

"We often lead up to holidays with anticipation," Grunau said. "We don't see a rocky road ahead because we genuinely want to have a great time.

People face a lot expectations at this time of year from families, friends and workplaces, she said.

"Instead of being this carefree, celebratory season, it can turn into a bit of a race.

"We need some stress in our anxiety in our life … but when that stress and anxiety starts to take over, that's a sign to get help."

If you or a loved one are in crisis, call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-833-456-4566 or find more resources here.

With files from Tanara McLean