“I spent most of my life wishing to be like those people who didn’t have mental illness or who didn’t have traumas or struggles. And I quickly realized that there is no normal out there, that everybody is just trying to figure it out as they go.”
When mental health advocate Mark Henick was a teenager in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, he was overwhelmed by depression and anxiety that led to a series of increasingly dangerous suicide attempts.
One night, he climbed onto a bridge over an overpass. Someone shouted, “Jump, you coward!” Another man, a stranger in a brown coat, talked to him quietly, calmly, and with deep empathy. Just as Henick’s feet touched open air, the man encircled his chest and pulled him to safety. This near-death experience changed his life forever. But the healing didn’t happen overnight.
“This isn’t a redemption story. It’s not a sudden hallelujah, everything is better kind of moment,” he says. “I didn’t realize that I was recovering until more than a decade later. And the funny thing about recovery is that you don’t realize how far you’ve come until you’re forced to look back.”
Henick recounts the struggles that led to this fateful day in his book, So-Called Normal: A Memoir of Family, Depression and Resilience (Harper Collins). It is a vivid account of the mental health challenges he experienced in childhood and his subsequent journey toward healing and recovery.
“I’m not the type of person who believes that your purpose is found as though you had lost it on the side of the road somewhere but rather that you build your sense of purpose,” says Henick. “When I started to open up and reach out to others, that’s really when my recovery started and when I had a reason to live.”
Henick’s anxiety began in Grade 2, followed by his parents’ separation and a precarious and often abusive living situation. Throughout his teen years, Henick attempted suicide several times, was in and out of psychiatric wards, and on medication. He experienced seizures and dealt with a medical system that was often ill-equipped to help someone so young.
In his 2013 TEDx talk, Why We Choose Suicide, Henick recounted that night on the bridge and his search for the man in the brown jacket who pulled him to safety (they eventually re-connected a few years later). At over 6.6 million views, it is one of the most-watched TEDx talks in the world. Since then, Henick has been a vocal advocate for mental health awareness, worked as a frontline clinician, became the youngest board director for the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and hosts several podcasts where he interviews Olympic athletes and famous actors like Glenn Close and Rosie O’Donnell about mental wellness.
The one thing that has resonated the most in his work, says Henick, is that there is no magic solution to overcoming depression and anxiety – you can’t wish yourself to be happy – but the most impactful treatment for him and others, is empathy.
“You can’t fix your cancer with empathy, but you can actually go a long way toward fixing your mental illness with empathy. Medication helped me. Psychotherapy helped me, and those things should be more available to those who need them. But we need a much more targeted approach and how we actually help people.”
Learn: About Mark Henick
Watch: Why we need to talk about suicide, TedxToronto, Oct 1st, 2013