Sisters who lost their husbands to suicide call for better mental health care

In the past 14 months, six people in Grand Bank, Newfoundland, have taken their lives. Two sisters, whose husbands took their lives, are speaking out about what needs to change.

Valerie Peach and Natalie Randell speaking out after 6 suicides in 14 months in Grand Bank

'We’ve always been close, but we're even closer now because of this,' said Valerie Peach, left, about her sister, Natalie Randell, right. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Valerie Peach's knuckles are white as she clutches the hand of her sister, Natalie Randell.

Their situation is unthinkable: both women lost their husbands to suicide last year.

We have spent more time at the funeral home in this past year than I have in my entire life.- Valerie Peach

Even more astonishing is that their husbands were two of six suicides in the past 14 months in the town of Grand Bank, on Newfoundland's Burin Peninsula.

Grand Bank has a population of just 2,300 people.

Both sisters cry openly as they describe what happened and how they're getting through it. They look to each other, gripping hands.

Natalie Randell hugs Valerie Peach by Leonard Peach's grave, (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

They're sad. But they're also angry.

"This country has to wake up," says Randell. "This province has to wake up."

Peach and Randell are speaking publicly about their husbands' suicides in an effort to raise awareness about mental health needs in the province and to change the way people talk about suicide. 

Sisters sharing sorrow

6 years ago
Duration 1:19
Valerie Peach and Natalie Rendell both lost their husbands to suicide, within a three-month period.

"I'm not just speaking about the people that are with a diagnosis," said Peach. "I'm speaking about the people that are suffering with them. Their family, their friends, the people that are having to watch, the people that are having to go through this."

What's needed is a "culture change," said Randell. "My nurse friend told me it takes a 10-year shift, but it has to start somewhere."

'I kept calling his name and he didn't answer'

Randell and Peach say their husbands had very different mental health issues.

Leonard Peach had a sudden change in his personality about two weeks before his death, his wife said. She related it to a new medication he had started taking for his stomach.

"I noticed he'd gotten really quiet, being cold which is very odd for Leonard because he's never cold." 

On Sept. 20, 2016, Peach says she woke up and prepared for work, as usual.

"I kissed him goodbye, I kissed his forehead, I kissed his lips. I said, 'I'll see you lunchtime.'"

Valerie and Leonard Peach on their wedding day. She says his mental illness was sudden with an extreme change in his personality. (Family photo)

But at work, she got a call from her son, asking if his father was going away. Her son told her he had received a text from his father.

"[It said] 'I love you very much,'" said Peach. "Followed by, 'Don't ever forget it. Goodbye.' Followed by all kinds of hearts."

Valerie Peach was at work when she got a call from her son about a puzzling text from his father. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

She drove home and was met by her sister-in-law, who told her she heard a gunshot.

"I walked up to the corner of the fence where my veranda met and I couldn't go any further," she said.

"And I kept calling his name and he didn't answer."

'I know that he tried and fought so hard to stay'

Natalie Randell, who works at the hospital in Grand Bank, was told about Leonard's death by the chief physician. When he took her aside to break the news, Randell at first thought her own husband had ended his life. He often talked about it.

Lindsay Randell struggled with clinical depression and bipolar disorder for 18 years.

"He's been medicated, changed medications multiple times, seen psychiatrists regularly, changed psychiatrists. We went to family counselling and marriage counselling," she said.

"We even made a trip into the Waterford [psychiatric hospital in St. John's.]"

'There is still this attitude that [his mental illness] is something he could control, which he could not,' said Natalie Randell of her husband, Lindsay. (Family photo)

Watching her husband suffer was as painful as hearing about his death, Randell said.

"Leonard was gone five weeks when Lindsay said in bed to me one night, the way he always started his suicide talk, 'You and [our son] Josh would be better off without me,' ... And we've had that talk so many times and so many times I tried to tell him that this is not what I want," she said.

A family photo of Lindsay Randell and his son, Josh. According to his wife, Randell talked often about how they would be better off without him. (Family photo)

"I know that he tried and fought so hard to stay. I understood, I researched it, I read, I tried my best to give him the trust and the honesty and the latitude of movement that he needed."

It felt like he was telling me that he's OK. That all that stuff that's going on in his head finally shut up.- Natalie Randell

​The day her husband ended his life, Randell was in the garage and a police officer was in the house with her husband.

When the officer came out without her husband, Randell said she knew instantly that he was gone. 

"I just sat there and I felt peace and calm from my head to my waist. And it felt like he was telling me that he's OK. That all that stuff that's going on in his head finally shut up."

'I'm sorry mom, I just took a pile of pills'

Unbelievably, there was more horror for the sisters.

Two months after Valerie Peach's husband took his life, her teenage son, Zachery, tried to take his.

On Nov. 21, he went to school, but then called to come home. He came in through the kitchen door and, without saying a word to his mother, who was washing dishes, he went up to the bathroom and closed the door.

"I knock on the bathroom door, and there's no answer. And it shocked me," she said. "I knew, I knew what I had been feeling in my stomach."

Finally, she said, "he crawled out the door. And he said, 'I'm sorry mom, I just took a pile of pills.'"

Valerie Peach with her husband and son, Zachery, who took an overdose about a month after his father's suicide. He's now doing well, but his mother says he needed more support from the regional health authority. (Family photo)

Peach got him to the hospital in time and he survived.

"But of course with the way the medical system is," she said, her tears drying up again and frustration flashing on her face, "he was sent home on Wednesday."

Two days after he was admitted, Zachery Peach left the hospital with a prescription for anti-depressants.

He is doing well now, but his mother says his experience underscores the lack of mental health supports in their community and in the province.

Phone line, app not enough

The wait to see a doctor or other health-care professional can be two or three weeks, even after an overdose — three months in other cases, Randell said.

People are told about other resources such as a mental health phone line or an app for their phone

"When someone is vulnerable enough that they actually go to a doctor it needs to be addressed at that very point in time. Because if you leave it for hours until they're sober, or until the psychiatrist comes in — it`s 'oh, I'm fine now,' and off they go."

Valerie and Leonard Peach on vacation, in a photo taken by their son. 'We were always cuddling, always very close.' (Family photo)

In 2016, there were 73 suicides in Newfoundland and Labrador — pushing the rate to three points above the Canadian average of 11.3 suicides for every 100,000 people.

In the Burin-Clarenville-Bonavista Peninsula area, where Grand Bank is located, that rate was more than twice the Canadian average last year. 

But basic mental health options in the region are "very, very limited," said Randell. The Burin Peninsula has just one psychiatrist, she said, and therapists in surrounding towns are expensive.

"If you're unemployed or if you're low-income, most of these are not available in the community," she said.

A spokesperson for Eastern Health said a new position is in the works for mental health and addictions services in the area.

But Randell emphasizes that providing mental health care in small towns is difficult.

"If [the therapist or psychiatrist is] somebody that you're friends with, it's not really somebody that you want to speak to about these things," she said.

'People think that suicide is a selfish thing. They have no idea. Suicide was an act of desperation due to intense pain,' said Natalie Randell. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Randell is part of the newly-formed community mental health coalition in Grand Bank, and the sisters have been spending a lot of time supporting other people in the town who have been affected by suicide.

"We've watched so many people suffer," said Peach. "We have spent more time at the funeral home in this past year than I have in my entire life."

If you are in distress or considering suicide, there are places to turn for support, including your doctor or Newfoundland and Labrador's Mental Health Crisis Centre at (709) 737-4668. The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention also has information about where to find help.

With files from Anthony Germain