An Alberta student died by suicide, and his family wants to talk about it

Evan Tran's family says they're devastated that it's too late to help him, but believe their story can help others.

'It's not something to put under the carpet,' says Vanlee Robblee, whose brother died at the U of A

The last words his friends will ever hear

7 years ago
Duration 1:12
Evan Tran told his friend Mishma Mukith to cheer up, and it made a world of difference. Now she wishes she could have done the same for him. (Video producer Sam Martin)

She listens to his voice and wonders how he got so lost.

His words reach out from April. Before he admitted to his older sisters he was struggling, before he made appointments with his doctor in a desperate move to try to figure out what was wrong.

Before he disappeared.

Mishma Mukith has played this old voicemail more than 100 times since she found out her friend was gone.

To her, it's a reminder of what a wonderful person Evan Tran was.

To his family, it's more evidence of a double life they wish they'd known about sooner.

No shame

"Would everyone mind sharing this photo? My brother-in-law has been missing since yesterday," Colin Robblee wrote in a Facebook post on Thanksgiving Monday. His family had already called police.

"Just thought social media might help."

Word spread quickly online and across the University of Alberta.

Evan Tran, 21, was known for snapping photos and volunteering on campus. Students are planning a memorial at the University of Alberta on Wednesday. (Supplied)
Tran, who volunteered with several student groups, was well-known on campus.

On Tuesday, they found him.

Administration says his was the third "non-criminal death" at the school in a year.

"I have no issue to say my brother committed suicide," said his sister, Vanlee Robblee.

Her voice quavers when she talks about the shame Tran felt over his long battle with depression. And she's talking about it now to banish such embarrassment. For the sake of her family. And for others.

"It's not a shameful act. It's not something to put under the carpet."

2 years of happy

Tran, 21, loved playing video games, taking pictures and snowboarding. He ran his own Facebook page for photography and held a summer job organizing camp programs for children. He planned to run his own business someday, like his parents.

Tran's mother and father are Chinese refugees from Vietnam who moved to Edmonton in 1980.

They run a hair salon a few blocks from Whyte Avenue and the family lives in an apartment upstairs. They work hard, rarely say "I love you," but always felt close.

Doctors diagnosed Tran with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder when he was 15 years old. He saw psychologists and sometimes took medication.

But over the last couple of years, as he started university, Tran seemed to find his balance. The change was noticeable to his family and friends.

'Charmingly awkward' and 'quirky' is how sister Angela Tran describes her younger brother, seen here volunteering at a campus event. His funeral, planned for later this month, will be open to the public.
"He was always really positive and outgoing," said his friend Tyler Nguyen, who saved Tran a seat in organic chemistry class each day.

Nguyen and several other close pals volunteered with Tran in a student group that advocates for mental health. He remembers his friend's caring nature, bright smile and great laugh.

"It's something that expresses what I thought was how he enjoyed his life and how much positivity he had to share for others," Nguyen said.

"And I only wish he had some of that to keep for himself."

Double life

That's a wish his family shares, desperately.

The phone calls, messages and online memorials from students and staff at the university tell them about a world they didn't know existed. A world in which Tran was "the bubbly kid," cracking jokes, helping and making friends, popular.

In private, his family mainly saw his pain. They worried. And they supported him in every attempt he made to escape his shadows.

"It was not for lack of trying. He tried — so, so hard," Robblee said.

After he confided to her in July that he was sinking toward another low point, they made appointments with his doctor. Tran wanted to rule out any physical ailments. He was two days from an appointment for a brain scan when he died.

Now, hindsight is full of "if onlys" and "maybe thens."

If only they had known more about this other happy life of his, that was seemingly untouched by the doubts and worries he shared at home. Maybe then they could have helped remind him of how much people cared.

Maybe then he could have bridged the gap between his private struggle and public persona, to find a way to become the man he wanted to be.

"It's just unfortunate that his disease won."

Second biggest killer 

Numbers from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health show suicide is the second leading cause of death for Canadians between the ages of 10 and 24.

The issue whipped into focus at the University of Alberta less than a year ago. In November 2014, administration announced it was working on a new suicide prevention program after two "non-criminal" deaths on campus in one month.

"If I'm in a really dark place, I'm probably not going to reach out to someone I don't know," said Kevin Friese, the executive director of the University Wellness Centre.

He said they're still working out the details of the new prevention plan. But the main goal is to be more strategic about bringing services to students, instead of students having to come to them.

"We need to help them so they don't get to that dark place."

And he says finding that help begins by talking — with anyone. Especially at this time of year.

CAMH's website says despite common beliefs that Christmas is most difficult, for Canadians the change of seasons from summer to winter is often toughest for those with mental health problems.

Holding on to light

Mishma Mukith was in a dark place when she got that call from Tran.

She went through a rough time in April. And she got through it, in part, with his help. The voicemail was one of many friendly calls to check in on her.

Listening to it now, she cries.

"It's just ironic that he offered so much support and help to his friends, but we couldn't be there for him."

Always thoughtful, he had slipped a little tea bag into her textbook the last time she saw him, a couple of weeks ago.

"For our next tea date," he said.

She's been sleeping with that tea bag under her pillow.

This link to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention can provide information, as well as contacts for crisis centres across Canada: http://www.suicideprevention.ca/in-crisis-now/thinking-about-suicide


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