Personal Stories

Photo by Barry Shainbaum.

Laura Coughlin

We adopted several children, and over time, we realized that some of our children had more than the usual number of issues.  Gradually, as my daughter Ashlee’s issues became more severe we went further afield for help and eventually became immersed in mental health.

Ashlee came to us at the age of eight months. She was already so different. She would not get into a bathtub and she had terrible fears. We always had to be within sight. She had major swings of being really silly and giddy to being really sad and crying and that was at the age of – well, eight months.  We didn’t know what it was. Even at five years old, we didn’t know what it was. But at the age of eight or ten we realized it was mood swings.  People offered to take her back into the foster care system. We were accused of bad parenting and were investigated time after time to see if we were doing anything bad to our children.  We finally met a pediatrician who believed really strongly that if a parent says there is something wrong, there is something wrong.  He referred us to the Child and Parent Resource Institute in London Ontario.  That was another long and painful struggle.

I’m sure Ashlee struggled from the day she was born until the day she died.  It was a struggle to maintain friends, and to remain in the home.  It was a struggle for her to interact with siblings, parents, neighbours.  She always needed more, and was always very egocentric. That being said, she was an amazing and resilient girl.  She had a great sense of humor, and was able to sympathize with other people who had mental health issues.  Her journey in and out of mental institutions was an inspiration. She always advocated for her peers, and empathized with their struggles.  She always wanted to share her family with others who no longer had families. She was simply amazing. 

On July 17th 2007,she was on a five minute fresh air pass at a secure facility and she overdosed.   I don’t think she ever really wanted to die. It was just another cry for help.  Unfortunately, because of road construction in the area, the ambulances didn’t get there fast enough and things didn’t go right. Even secure facilities are no guarantee of safety. We lost her.

Ultimately, I’ve become a believer in recovery and hope. There’s hope for many people out there.  I’ve also come to recognize that at some point in someone’s journey, it’s their choice, or perhaps a greater being’s choice.  She struggled for twenty-one years with demons and mood disorders and medications and didn’t deserve the painful and dysfunctional life she led.

We had started to talk within our own family about mental health and the need for more resources and education.  We talked about the need for it to no longer be the hidden word, the word no one would speak.  I guess in our journey we had become educated.  We met a lot of other parents struggling to educate themselves, to be able to accept mental illness. During their struggles, some of the things that were consistent were, “I didn’t know where to go; I didn’t know what to do; no one understands what’s happening to our family,” many messages of frustration and giving up.  One of the first things I did was speak at a number of local venues about Ashlee’s death. It’s a depressing speech, but part of that speech is intended to encourage people to understand that children do have mental illness and that many things can be done like early intervention and supports .These things need to happen.

Speaking about Ashlee keeps Ashlee’s memory alive.   Speaking is cathartic.

I decided to start a support group but I didn’t want to be the sole person responsible for the group. I wanted to have an organization to give me credence, to be able to turn to for assistance, to get information from and have a connection with. I started researching. The MOOD DISORDERS ASSOCIATION had a lot of things I thought were needed, except they didn’t deal with kids!  I wound up talking to the MOOD DISORDERS ASSOCIATION a lot, and it could see my vision and understand where I wanted to go. They were extremely supportive in helping me with the things I wanted to give to people. 

I believe in being in the right place at the right time.  I happened to go to the MOOD DISORDERS ASSOCIATION website on a whim to see what was new, and noticed there was a contest for speaking, the HeadStrong program.  I sat down and whipped off my speech – it just came out of me – it was just there waiting to be said. I submitted my application and went to London where there were a number of excellent speakers. I was extremely nervous and felt out of my depth. I was selected as one of the ten10 HeadStrong speakers.  It gave me more opportunities to speak and to advocate. Ashlee empowered me to do what needed to be done and yes, every time I speak, more people hear, sometimes what they may not want to hear.  People walk out crying, and angry, but that’s okay.It’s reality.

I was dancing in the rain today – it’s Ashlee’s birthday. Her favorite food was pizza and pop, so we went to the cemetery and had pizza and pop.  Rainstorms bring rainbows, and even if there’s not a pot of gold, there’s hope.  There’s hope for other kids, other families, for every person with a mental illness.  I have two other kids with mental illnesses, and they’re success stories.  I think Ashlee has been our inspiration to continue to embrace children’s mental health, to strive towards having it accepted as  no different than any other illness a person can have.

 Ashlee was a fighter.  Her mental illness was not her fault. And it wasn’t ours. We so often get blamed as parents for a child’s mental illness, and the child also gets accused of bad behavior, rather than being recognized as having an illness.  Ashlee inspired a lot of people.  We now have four child and adolescent psychiatrists at our Grand River hospital. When she struggled we had none.  They have changed their protocol of how they deal with kids with mental health issues who come into emergency rooms.  And that was a result of Ashlee. She was a fighter. She was on earth to inspire us, to make my family and me better people.