Nfld. & Labrador

A son's suicide, a mother's grief, and her message of hope for others

Speaking out in the wake of her son Tyler Pittman's death, Helen Pittman shares the struggle of caring for a loved one with mental illness.

Tyler Pittman was soft-spoken and kind but struggled with depression and addiction

Tyler Pittman struggled with addictions and mental illness for years before his death in May. (Submitted by Colleen Pittman)

My way of doing things and abusing things has not exactly worked. It has led me to where I am today, scared, alone and fighting for my life.

So reads an excerpt of a searingly honest letter from Tyler Pittman, giving voice to his inner turmoil while at the Humberwood Treatment Centre in Corner Brook, an inpatient program for people dealing with addictions.

The letter is, at times, hard to read — as the St. John's man dissects his addictions' grip over him and the struggle to recognize his own worth in a way few can articulate. It's equal parts doubt and hope, and laced with an ominous quality, as if the letter was drenched in gasoline and a matchbook was within arm's reach. 

If Tyler doesn't love Tyler there will be no reasonable relationship in the future, loneliness and discontent will prevail... I somehow have to love myself for who I am and stop running.

Five years later, a different description of Tyler appeared in print. This time, it was part of his obituary, after his suicide on May 18:

Forever let's remember how his smile lightened our hearts, how nice it felt to be around him, and how easy it was to love him. 


Helen Pittman remembers her son's early years as cheerful ones.

He liked math, and loved baseball, hanging around St. Pat's Ball Park so much teams took him on as a batboy and invited him on the road for tournaments.

"He was everybody's little brother," she recalled.

Tyler and his dad Randy Pittman shared a love of hockey — especially the Montreal Canadiens — as well as other sports. (Submitted by Colleen Pittman)

But even then, Helen saw anxiety starting to creep in. When her son was denied an opportunity to try pitching around the age of 11, she saw his negative reaction and felt a seed had been planted, "and it started to sprout."

From there, she said, his anxiety and need for perfection grew, and by Grade 9 she and her husband realized something was wrong.

Then, came drinking and drugs, she said. And what she called, at first, "episodes."

"First, it would be like screaming, and that type of frustration. And then it would come and go. But as he got older, they became very regular," she told CBC Radio's On The Go. He became physical, hitting objects and himself as if "trying to beat out all this torment that was inside," she said.

The Pittmans sought help, tried to follow family doctor suggestions and bounced around through the health-care system. But having to repeat his issues seemed to frustrate him, said Helen, because "it just seemed like he was repeating his story over and over and over, and nobody was listening."

Helen Pittman remembers her son as intellectual and well-spoken. (Submitted by Colleen Pittman)

'A never-ending cycle'

One instance in the string of those attempts stands out to her, when her son went to the Health Sciences Centre saying he was having suicidal thoughts.

He was transported to the Waterford Hospital, with Helen driving behind. She wasn't allowed to accompany him during his consultation, but in the parking lot afterwards, Helen said, her son told her he'd been given a referral and told to stop smoking so much weed.

There, at her car, Helen said she watched her son lose hope and control, beating his hands on the car to the point that his knuckles were bleeding and his hands were swollen.

"And he said to me, 'Mom,' he said, 'why do they think I'm doing drugs and I'm drinking? It's not because I woke up one morning and decided this was what I wanted to do. Do they not realize I have issues? I want help.'"

"I think at that point, he gave up," she said.

Helen believes her son's ability to articulate and reason — so evident in his Humberwood letter — also impeded getting help. She said his emotional tailspins would often peter out by the time he managed to see a medical professional, leaving behind a man who, from the outside, appeared calm, or at least spent. 

"He was well-spoken. He was very mild-mannered, and that was just part of who Tyler was," she said.

As long as you got another day, and you open your eyes, and you can breathe, there's always hope.- Helen Pittman

But his depression and addictions continued, and grew more complex. Helen said she felt as though he was wearing a mask, where people around him saw a lovable friend or relative, while his own self-perception was more akin to a funhouse mirror.

His father's death in 2010 hit him particularly hard, what Helen Pittman and his sisters called "the tip of the iceberg." 

Tyler's addictions and mental health issues continued, as did his family's attempts to help him. Helen Pittman would drive him to jobs doing electrical work each morning, even if he had outbursts in the car on the way there. For a while he moved to British Columbia and lived with his sister Jillian Pittman, ending up in hospital after a suicide attempt.

"It went on, and on and on, it was just a never-ending cycle," she said.

Tyler lived with his sister Jillian Pittman while he was in British Columbia. (Submitted by Colleen Pittman)

The long weekend

When the pandemic hit, Tyler was back in St. John's. He'd thrown himself into home renovations, working on the house his father died in.

Helen Pittman watched, tinged with hope: Tyler was outlining concrete plans, and putting in shower curtains, taking steps into the future. But like anyone who has a loved one suffering from mental illness, Helen Pittman was fearful as well, that any little setback could spark bigger problems.

That spark came on the Victoria Day weekend, as Tyler's frustrations with putting a new floor down bubbled over.

Helen said he began putting himself down, drinking, and despite family offers to help vanished for a period of time — leaving his loved ones on high alert.

But he returned on the Sunday evening, and Helen tried to reason with her son in his depressed and drunk state, and keep her visit non-confrontational. Tyler had taken a hammer and punched holes in the walls, she said, and he apologized to her for it.

Helen couldn't shake the sense that things weren't going to get better. "I knew what was coming," she said.

On Monday afternoon she checked in again.

"He picked me up and gave me the biggest hug. He lifted me off the floor and throwed me around. He'd never done that," she said, adding it set her at ease. He promised he was going to sleep.

The day after that, when Helen popped in again, "it was too late."

Tyler was dead.

Tyler, far left, shares a laugh with his three uncles Ken, Chris and Dave Pittman, and cousin Justin Pittman. (Submitted by Colleen Pittman)

'There's always hope'

In the wake of his death, as Helen tries to make sense of events that can't always be made sense of, she wants to make one thing clear.

"My fear is that people will say he took the easy way out," she said, adding nothing could be further from the truth.

"His life wasn't easy. He suffered every single day ... it was brave of him to get up every day."

Up until the end, she said, Tyler was trying to deal with his issues. He had been doing telephone counselling after in-person sessions were cancelled due to pandemic concerns. Amid all the family's frustrations with the health-care system, and feeling like aspects of it failed him, Helen said he was still seeking help.

"The message that I want to get out to people is that, don't give up. I would say this to Tyler: as long as you got another day, and you open your eyes, and you can breathe, there's always hope."

Struggling daily with his sickness and his addictions, Tyler Pittman fought to keep that hope alive within him during his lifetime.

So what is this letter really about? It's about my inability to feel and deal with my own feelings. It's about my continuous work that I must complete in an attempt to love myself and to continue rebuilding myself...

Read Tyler Pittman's full letter below.


Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (text) | http://www.crisisservicescanada.ca/ (chat)

In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre


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About the Author

Lindsay Bird

CBC News

Lindsay Bird is a journalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, based in Corner Brook.

With files from On The Go

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