Mental health program for parents honours young woman lost to suicide

The Sashbear Foundation was created by Lynn Courey and Mike Menu in honour of their daughter, Sasha Menu Courey, who committed suicide in 2011.

Parents Mike Menu and Lynn Courey emphasize how important family is when dealing with mental health

Sasha Menu Courey in 2010. She committed suicide not long after being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. (University of Missouri Athletic Department/Associated Press)

A Toronto husband and wife who lost their daughter to suicide have founded an organization aimed at helping families cope with mental illness — a group that's so successful that institutions like the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) are referring clients to it.

The Sashbear Foundation was created by Lynn Courey and Mike Menu in honour of  Sasha Menu Courey,  who died in 2011 at the age of 20. Courey says the program focuses on helping families and parents, not just the individual living with the mental health issue.

Menu Courey's death made headlines when it came to light that she had been sexually assaulted on campus at the University of Missouri where she was attending school. 

"One of the missions of the Sashbear foundation is to disseminate skills for family members in need of skills and hope, to help them navigate the system, to help them have skills to become more effective for themselves and their loved ones."

Mike Menu and Lynn Courey, of Toronto, seen here during a CBC News story on their daughter.s suicide in 2011. (CBC)

In 2012 they discovered a program in the U.S., called Family Connections, which is a 12-week skills course for parents, taught by parents who've lived with children struggling with mental health issues. Courey and Menu brought the program to Toronto in 2014 and began offering the course to families for free.

The power of family

Karen Black, director of The Sashbear Foundation, says this program is filling a big gap as conventional treatments don't typically include the family.

"The family can play a powerful role in prevention, treatment and recovery," Black said.."The Family Connections program provides life saving skills to the families."

The only criterion to participate, she says, is to have a loved one who is struggling with a mental health issue — no specific diagnosis is required.

Black says The Sashbear Foundation is now being sought after for presentations on the importance of including families.

Agencies such as CAMH, Sunnybrook Family Navigation Program, Hincks Dellcrest, Mount Sinai, SickKids, University Health Network, the Canadian Mental Health Association, and private clinicians are referring families to Sashbear.

The organization just completed a Family Connections program in Vancouver for the Fraser Health Authority and will be offering the first French language program this year in Quebec.

Cevdet Cingi and wife Christina Verduci with daughter Zara Rose. Cingi and Verduci both joined The Sashbear Foundation Family Connections program to assist with Verduci's Borderline Personality Disorder. (CBC)

Courey says 2016 was a big year for them, but in 2017 they plan to make even bigger strides.

"In 2016, we were so excited to see that Sashbear delivered over 30 groups and helped over 500 families. And this year we're going even further. Now we're bringing Family Connections across Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, and in Quebec," Courey said. 

"Our goal really is in 2022, we would like Family Connections to be in all provinces and territories."

Mental health issues can affect anyone

Christina Verduci has been living with Borderline Personality Disorder for years.

Lynn Courey, Founder of The Sashbear Foundation and mother of Sasha Menu Courey. Her daughter lived with borderline personality disorder and committed suicide in 2011. (CBC)

"From a young age I was dealing with a lot of trauma in my life and not knowing why I was acting out the way I was at the age of 18. Then figuring that all out, and then I lashed out again and went through my own issues in my twenties, so it's been a challenge."

Verduci says joining The Sashbear Foundation's Family Connections program was a major turning point in her life. She says it helped her to understand herself and her partner.

"It's helped a lot within our relationship. Right now he has a better understanding of the kind of things that I'm going through, which helps him to be supportive. Just talking or trying to have that better understanding sometimes when I have moments, so it's been good."

Making strides and 'Making Waves'

The Sashbear Foundation's slogan is "Making waves on BPD and suicide prevention."

One third of youth who die by suicide have traits of Emotion Dysregulation. People who suffer from it have difficulty managing their emotions and impulses, which can lead to depression, anxiety, harmful behaviours and suicide.

On Sunday, May 28, at 10 a.m. family, friends, and leading mental health practitioners from Canada and the United States will gather to support the work of The Sashbear Foundation at The 5th Annual Borderline 5-Kilometre Walk for Emotion Dysregulation.

The theme of this year's walk is "Families for Youth," highlighting the powerful role the family plays in helping to prevent and obtain treatment for Emotion Dysregulation.

Courey says she's made it her mission to help others avoid going through the devastation that her family had to go through.

"If we think it's hard to live with someone struggling with mental health issues, it's even harder to live without them. This is why I really dedicate my life to help other families to prevent them from going through a similar tragic story."