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Sister shares 'honest' story of brother who died by suicide as focus turns to men's mental health

Erin Mitchell, 37, and her brother Brian Mitchell of London, Ont., were just two years apart. During a month when one charity is focusing on men's mental health, she describes watching her otherwise funny and sweet brother slip into a life of addiction and depression before he died by suicide last month.

Brian Mitchell, 35, of London, Ont., struggled with addiction and depression, and died last month.

Siblings Erin and Brian Mitchell, who were adopted, grew up in a loving family, she says. But in recent years, Erin adds, he had struggled with a cocaine addiction and deteriorating mental health. He died by suicide at the end of October. (Submitted by Erin Mitchell)

WARNING: The details of this story may be distressing for some readers

"Stories like Brian's should not be ignored," reads Brian Mitchell's obituary published earlier this month.

The 35-year-old London, Ont., man died by suicide on Oct. 31. 

Now, as one national charity focuses on men's mental health in November, his sister Erin is telling his story.

"We wanted to be as honest about this as possible because Brian struggled for a long time," said Erin Mitchell, 37. "There's probably so many other families and friends who have a loved one in a very similar situation.

"It almost feels as if Brian's death by suicide was inevitable.

"This wasn't his first attempt."

In recent years, Brian, a father of two children, had struggled with a cocaine addiction and deteriorating mental health. He lost custody of Ava, 6, and Olivia, 3.

Erin had gotten used to worrying about her brother, who until his death worked at a Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) warehouse. 

"There are so many sleepless nights, so many times that you're afraid and so many times that you call the police. And the only thing that you can do is take him down to the CMHA [Canadian Mental Health Association] office, if he'll go with you."

Mitchell had two young daughters, Ava and Olivia. (Submitted by Erin Mitchell)

The men's charity Movember, which is focusing on mental health and suicide prevention this month, says on its website that "the rate of male suicide is alarmingly high: in Canada, three out of four suicides are by men."

Sister remembers 'charismatic' brother

Brian and Erin, who were adopted, grew up in a loving and supportive family. "I always wanted to be him," Erin recalled.

Her brother was charismatic and full of life, she said.

"He's always sparkled and had enormous athletic talent. He was always the centre of the friend group. He was always making everybody laugh."

But that person began to slip away about two years ago.

"We had been losing him for quite a while," Erin said.

"One of the hardest things about the past couple of years is watching that piece of him continue to fade away."

Mitchell with his eldest daughter Ava. (Submitted by Erin Mitchell)

Brian had been missing for a number of days when police knocked on the door of the family home earlier this month. Their mother had just stepped out for some fresh air, and when one of the officers asked where she was, Erin knew her brother was gone.

"It's an out-of-body experience. Everything hurts. It's like your insides are twisting," she said.

"It feels like you've lost a limb. It's absolutely surreal that everything culminated and that there was nothing that we could do to stop it."

No easy answers to 'complex' problem

"Suicide is a complicated end," said Erin, who hopes sharing an honest account of Brian's story will help others who are also watching a loved one struggle.

"There's so many people struggling in this situation that we wanted to be very honest about what that path looks like, how lonely it is, how terrifying it is and how it can end."

Erin and her family tried to get Brian help. Over and over. 

"At the end of the day, you have to really want it and you have to really want it for yourself. And sometimes you just can't get there, even when you do want it."

That's been the hardest part. Despite all their efforts, Brian is still gone. 

"The issue of suicide is incredibly complex," the Movember website reads. "But we know this: improving overall mental health and helping men establish better social connections can reduce the risk of suicide. 

"By 2030, we hope to reduce the rate of male suicide by 25 per cent."

In a recent Facebook post, Erin wrote: "We could point fingers and say that the system is broken, that it failed Brian and countless others like him."

But she believes that's too simplistic, and the mental health system is still in its infancy, and only just beginning to understand depression and addiction and how to treat it, particularly in men. 

"Do men talk about losing custody of their children due to some of their choices? Do men talk about their drug addiction and abuse, their loneliness in separation? Where is that for them?"

In the last couple of years, Brian had been in and out of rehab, and at one of his stays was assigned to write his own obituary.

He wrote that he loved his daughters, loved sports and humour and although he had struggles in his life, he still showed up. 

You can read Brian's obituary in his own words here:

Erin's goal now is to support Brian's two daughters and keep her brother's legacy alive.

"You want to be mad at some point. You know, later. Hours later, days later. But I'm not. I'm not mad at my brother.

"I hope that he's found the peace that he wanted to have in his life for so long."

Mitchell, shown in the summer of 2021, had been in and out of rehab. Now, his sister says her goal is to keep his legacy alive. (Submitted by Erin Mitchell)
Erin Mitchell shares her deeply personal story on London Morning about why her family wanted to be upfront and public about her brother's death.

Where you can get help

Reach Out: 24/7 crisis line for people experiencing a mental health or addictions crisis living in Elgin, Oxford, Middlesex or London. Call 1-866-933-2023.

The Support Line: 24/7, confidential listening and support for people 16 old older. Call 519-601-8055, toll-free 1-844-360-8055. The line is unable to accommodate unknown numbers, so call Reach Out instead.

Under 16? Call Kids Help Phone. Live chat and texting are also options. 1-800-668-6868.

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Zandbergen

Host, London Morning

Rebecca Zandbergen is from Ottawa and has worked for CBC Radio across the country for more than 20 years, including stops in Iqaluit, Halifax, Windsor and Kelowna. Contact Rebecca at rebecca.zandbergen@cbc.ca

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