North end resident Gary Brown admits he was "ignorant" to mental health issues and the prevalence of suicide until, in 2019, tragedy struck: 21-year-old Maddy Murphy took her own life.
The talented Quispamsis athlete was one of 22 recorded suicides in Saint John, N.B. between July 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019, causing Brown to sit up and take notice.
"I didn't realize things were that bad," he said. "Them suicides there kind of woke me up – especially Maddy Murphy."
The 60-year-old got involved with the Murphy family, helping them raise money for the Maddy Murphy Memorial Foundation.
Then in April of 2021, he launched the “I Am All Ears, Reach Out” T-shirt campaign. It raises awareness about mental health and trains people in crisis intervention through a course called ASIST: Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training.
Now, in time for World Suicide Prevention Day on Sept. 10, Brown, along with a handful of helpful friends and volunteers, will unveil his latest project: the Giant Steps Wellness Park, located on the property of the Crescent Valley Gospel Centre.
The wellness park includes a large mural, ribbon-shaped benches and landscaping in the shape of hearts. A memorial for those who have died, it was created to bring attention to the pervasiveness of suicide and provide a place of solitude and reflection, Brown said.
"We made two benches, and one is going to be in memory of Maddy Murphy, and the other will be in the memory of Carson Hoyt," he said, noting the sixteen-year-old died by suicide on June 13.
Saint John visual artist Constance Wooldridge helped with the memorial by designing and painting the mural. Artist Sylvia Robichaud took part in the artistic elements of the park, too.
"We want people to realize that there is someone there to give a helping hand, no matter what the situation," Wooldridge said. "It's not hopeless. It doesn't have to be full of despair."
In the mural, steps lead up to a figure, painted all in black, who represents any person feeling despair and hopelessness.
"There's a light above him or her, and it's shining down on them, regardless of whether they see it or not," Wooldridge said. "It's done in black because we didn't want the figure to be defined by race."
While there are other features to the mural, still missing is a red cardinal she planned to paint on Tuesday. It will represent hope and spirit.
Brown's lifelong friend Gary Gower was also involved by asking local companies to donate services and materials. He said participating was important to help people in crisis know they're not alone.
"Mental illness is not something to be ashamed of," he said. "It needs to be accepted by everybody – by the general public and, in particular, the politicians, and recognize that it's no different from any other illness, whether you've got a broken leg or an injured shoulder."
According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, about 4,000 Canadians per year die by suicide – an average of almost 11 suicides a day. It affects people of all ages and backgrounds.
Per capita, however, the centre reports that suicide rates in Canada are trending down. They peaked in 1983 at 15.1 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to 11.0 per 100,000 in 2016.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony to officially unveil the Giant Steps Wellness Park in Saint John is on Sept. 10, World Suicide Prevention Day, at 11 a.m. at 500 Somerset St.
Robin Grant, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal