Nfld. & Labrador

Five years after Jacob Puddister's death, his sister says his legacy lives on

The Jacob Puddister Memorial Foundation has granted free counselling to more than 2,000 youth going through mental health struggles since 2016.

Memorial foundation working to highlight gaps in youth mental health services

Jacob Puddister died by suicide on Aug. 24, 2016 at the age of 21. Five years later, his family preserves his legacy through the Jacob Puddister Memorial Foundation. (Jacob Puddister Memorial Foundation)

When Kelsey Puddister looks at the calendar to mark the fifth anniversary of the death of her brother, Jacob, she says it's hard to believe the time has passed at all.

"It feels like it's been 20 years since I've seen him, and it also feels like 10 seconds all at once," Puddister said Saturday.

"I think grief does a weird thing to time.… When I'm talking about the five-year anniversary, I'm saying it out loud but my brain is like, 'Are you sure that's true? How can that be true? How could you have gone five years without him?' You just do somehow."

Kelsey and Jacob grew up very close in Bay Bulls. She remembers her brother as creative and caring, and someone who kept family and friends close.

But with it came struggles, Kelsey said: a battle with depression and a sense of shame that came with it.

 Jacob died by suicide on Aug. 24, 2016. He was 21.

Jacob's sister, Kelsey, is a therapist and managing director of the Jacob Puddister Memorial Foundation. (Alex Kennedy/CBC)

"My brother Jake was the best," she said. "[But] he struggled with his mental health for many, many years throughout his teenage life."

In the months that followed, Puddister said, her family needed a way to channel their grief into something positive. After a phone call with her father, they decided to start the Jacob Puddister Memorial Foundation to offer free counselling to youth.

"Jake loved helping people," said Puddister, who serves as managing director of the foundation. "We needed something to do with our grief, and Jake's heart was the biggest that I could ever imagine."

"There's no free consistent youth counselling service, and that's where I wanted to begin."

What began as a series of fundraisers for local organizations has grown into a bricks-and-mortar counselling service in St. John's. Puddister, who is also a therapist, said the foundation has booked more than 2,500 appointments in the past year and a half, with 75 people on an eight-week waiting list.

The group has also set the ultimate goal of creating a 40-50-bed mental health treatment facility in the province.

"All of our services are trauma-informed, and centred around that person being the expert in their own life and that person just needing some support," she said. "We believe everybody deserves that support."

The foundation also continues to fundraise, highlighted by the yearly Shifting Gears car show in support of mental health initiatives. The event will take place in Mobile on Sunday.

'I think he'd be proud'

Over the course of five years, Puddister said, the foundation's work has highlighted a gap in youth mental health services in Newfoundland and Labrador.

As suicide rates rise in the province, she said more needs to be done to help those who may be struggling — like increasing resources for marginalized people and the LGBTQ community, and mandatory suicide intervention training in workplaces.

"I think we need to gather as a community more and more all the time," she said. "So we can save our people, hold our people close and create a culture and a society where there's no shame around needing mental health support."

Kelsey and Jacob embrace at Kelsey's high school graduation. (Jacob Puddister Memorial Foundation)

Ahead of the anniversary of Jacob's passing, Kelsey said her brother is still with her every day, and will continue to be as work to share his legacy continues.

"There's a big picture of him hanging in the porch, so I get to see him every day and look at him. There's lots of times that if I'm the last person there, I look back at him and I look him in his eyes and just wink or say what's up," she said.

"I think he'd be proud. I think that he would be astounded that so many people are still saying his name, and are still being helped by his name and his legacy," she added. "I think what we've done, as well as we possibly can, is that we've blended our grief with the joy of having had him, and I think that is one of our the hardest things that I'll ever do."

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Alex Kennedy


Alex Kennedy works for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador in St. John's.