‘Who you say I am’

Jeremy Cummins says the words to that hymn showed
him that he had been ‘chosen’ to live

Jeremy Cummins returns to the scene of a life-changing event.  (Drone video by Sarah Spisak and Travis Ames. Click image to play.)

By Zoe Cronin

JEREMY CUMMINS is no stranger to the High Level Bridge. He has visited it three times since he started struggling with mental health in 2015. His latest visit was last St. Patrick’s Day, and he intended to jump. He says he no longer feared death – he just wanted to be free of his pain.

He called his mom for what he thought would be his last goodbye.

When I was standing on the bridge, I felt there was nothing to live for, or anyone to talk me down from jumping. When you are that deep and negative in your thoughts, you don’t care about anyone else.”

That conversation with his mother, Shelley, is the reason Cummins still lives.

“I couldn’t stand the late-night calls and suicidal thoughts anymore,” Shelley says. “As a mother, it is within my best interest to do what’s best. I had to intervene.”

Shelley arrived at the High Level Bridge and talked her son down from jumping. Then, they drove home to St. Albert where he was admitted into Sturgeon Community Hospital.

“The nurse – instead of dismissing me – brought her chair around and listened. That was the first glimmer of hope I felt since the beginning of my depression.”

The beginning was 2015, when Cummins was driving home with friends after a long weekend. They saw an SUV crashed into a semi-trailer and stopped to help. Both drivers were severely injured, and the group stayed with them until the ambulance arrived.

“I regretted not getting help after the accident had occurred,” he says. “And sometimes I wonder if things would be different if I did.”

Later that year, when he was driving down that same road, Cummins saw a truck in the distance, flipped upside down. He began to shake.

“Walking up to the truck and not knowing what to expect was terrifying,” he recalls. “And all my worst thoughts came true when I looked inside.”

‘I experienced the feeling of survivor’s guilt. Like, why did
that man have to die and not me?’

Cummins frantically tried to help but the driver soon died. Again, Cummins failed to seek help after the incident. Instead, he turned to alcohol.

“I experienced the feeling of survivor’s guilt. Like, why did that man have to die and not me? I chose to forget, and by that, I mean drink.”

Some nights Cummins would black out. Twice, he thought about jumping off the High Level Bridge. Eventually, he landed in hospital.

A few days after his St. Patrick’s Day crisis, he was transferred via ambulance to the Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, where he began his three-week rehabilitation process.

“I remember lying there in my first week and not wanting to eat or do anything,” he recalls. “Then something clicked in my mind, acknowledging I was here and needed to take advantage of this opportunity. That’s when I started to try.”

He found the most therapeutic thing to do in the hospital was to socialize with other patients, and he developed a friendship with one, Karlee Ousdahl.

Kim Knull and Cummins promoting the YEG Talks baseball event.  (Courtesy Brendan Ryder)

Ousdahl is a second-year occupational therapy student at the University of Alberta, who also suffers from depression. She says conversations with other patients have played a vital role in her recovery.

“It does not matter who we are, when it comes to going through a mental illness,” Ousdahl says. “We need help. We need a team who will give us sparks of hope when we see nothing but darkness.”

She says the hospital team saved her life.

“I was no longer safe at home with my parents. Nighttime was the worst for me, when thoughts would ruminate in dark places. I needed the hospital’s nighttime check-ins for my safety, while I could work on my mental health during the day.”

Trying to face negative thoughts alone can be a mistake, no matter how capable you may be, she says.

“I thought I should be able to help myself, considering I am going to be in a health-care profession and have education regarding mental health. But I was very wrong.”

In hospital, Cummins had good days and bad ones. He struggled with weekends especially, he says, because he knew that there was a world going on outside, and he wasn’t part of it.

One night in hospital, he started thinking about ending his life again. He called his friend Kindra Bell, who had experienced mental health issues of her own – and she had turned to God for help.

“At that point, I was trying to find anything to be excited about and to find a purpose,” Cummins says.

‘At that point, I was trying to find anything to be
excited about and to find a purpose’

He used his weekend pass from the hospital to visit the Celebration Church, where he reconnected with Bell.

“At that moment my heart sank in my chest,” she says of her feelings when Cummins shared his struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. “All I could do was hurt for him because I knew those thoughts all too well.”

As the service began, the worship team began singing “Who you say I am.” Bell was singing: “I am chosen, not forsaken/ I am who you say I am/ You are for me, not against me/ I am who you say I am.”

“All I could do was pray and sing the words to God, asking Him to take all the pain away from Jeremy,” she recalls.

Once he got out of rehab, with the support of the church, and his family and friends, Cummins started YEG Talks, a website that welcomes people struggling to find help and offers them a place to share their stories.

Cummins says he hoped that, by sharing his story online, he could encourage others to do the same, and help end the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

“It was a scary process making my story very public and putting myself in a very vulnerable position. If me sharing my story can help somebody, it is all worth it.

YEG Talks organizers meet to discuss logistics for the baseball event (Brendan Ryder)

“Selfishly, talking about my thoughts every day also gets easier and more beneficial for myself.”

Through YEG Talks, Cummins and Bell organized a 24-hour baseball game at RE/MAX Field, which took place on Aug.18, with 16 teams made up of Edmonton restaurant workers.

The tournament raised more than $10,000 for the Momentum Walk-In Counselling Services, which had helped Cummins after his hospitalization.

“I think that says a lot for how the Edmonton community can come together when it’s something that can raise so much awareness for such a great cause and affects so many we know and care about,” Bell says.

Kim Knull, a psychologist at the Momentum Walk-In Clinic says she was amazed by the courage Cummins showed in a very difficult time of his life.

“I’m so glad that he had supportive family and friends, who recognized when he wasn’t himself,” she says of Cummons recovery. “And that he has been able to be vulnerable enough to accept help and then share his hopeful story.

“I am deeply touched that he trusted Momentum, and that we were able to play a part in his healing journey.”

‘After being in such a dark spot, the fact I could
do something with it was really beneficial’

The money YEG Talks raised has helped countless people afford mental health treatment at the Momentum clinic by helping to fund treatment for people who can’t afford to pay for the things provincial health care doesn’t cover.

“Forty per cent of our clients make less than $1,000 a month,” Knull says. “And even more have financial issues that make paying out of pocket for treatment very difficult. Our pay-it-forward fund subsidized the cost of treatment for those individuals that need it most.”

The event was therapeutic in itself, Cummins says.

“I wanted to give back to the community that helped me so much. After being in such a dark spot, the fact I could do something with it was really beneficial.”

Events like the baseball tournament raise public awareness about mental illness, and help remove the stigma, Knull says.

Shelley Cummins was also a key member in planning the YEG Talk event. She says she was afraid it would consume her son, like a drug.

“I was worried that the event would be a distraction from his current pain and suicidal thoughts, and when it was all over, he would crash. I am only now realizing that it was me who crashed.”

Since the event, she says, she has been focusing on her own stress and anxiety. Especially when she has to leave Edmonton for a few days, leaving her son alone.

“As a parent, you experience the feelings your children do. I would be up all night worrying if Jeremy was OK – and still do.

“I have had my own struggles with mental health and know that it is an ongoing issue.”

She partly blames herself for Jeremy’s battle with depression, because she fears heredity and her struggles with mental health may have made him more susceptible.

“I have feelings of guilt and responsibility for Jeremy’s mental health struggle. As a single mother, I had depression. And the way you raise your kids and open them to experiences shapes them into who they are.”

Ousdahl says she can relate to Shelley’s fears, because she knows the impact depression can have on a family.

“My grandmother died to suicide. My great-grandfather died to suicide, and I’ve seen depression in multiple other family members. And today, I still struggle.”

Shelley wants to help other mothers avoid the pain she and her son suffered, by setting up a support group for mothers with children battling mental illness.

“The more we talk about the stigma and our feelings, the easier it is to heal. Women together are very supportive and understand the support and nurture needed for an individual. Having people to talk to who are in a similar situation allows you to feel as if you’re not alone, which is nice as a single mother.”

Like Ousdahl, Cummins continues to struggle with his mental illness.

“I don’t see myself as a role model. Hearing others’ struggles is therapeutic, knowing that there are more people out and about experiencing what I do, is calming.

“I still have a lot of ups and downs. At this very point, I have a lot of lows and not many highs. But telling myself I can grow after every low and have the opportunity to get better sees me through.”

Ousdahl says she believes that once depression or suicidal thoughts enter the brain they never leave.

“I find myself going back to the same thought patterns when life gets difficult. I think that suicide may always be there as a backup plan. Although I know it is not rational; depression is driving this thought and it is not to be trusted.

“It will still be lingering there.”

‘I’ve never felt so understood in my life,
and that in itself is therapeutic’

Knull says everyone is susceptible to the ups and downs of life, but the incidence of youth mental issues in Edmonton is at record levels, in number and severity.

There is evidence that technology creates ways of relating with other people that allows for continual attachment – and emotionally detachment.

According to Statistics Canada, Alberta has the highest percentage of Internet users in the country, with nearly everyone under the age of 45 going online every day.

“It is easy to blame electronics,” Knull says. “But a decrease in meaningful, connected relationships as compared to past generations is a serious problem.”

Ousdahl credits the relationships she made at the hospital for her survival.

“Sharing stories, relating feelings and thoughts, realizing how similar depression can present itself across very different people is comforting. I’ve never felt so understood in my life, and that in itself is therapeutic.”

Having people like Cummins, Ousdahl and Bell sharing their experiences may help open the door for others to come forward, Knull says.

“When we are able to put a face to the issue, to know that everyone struggles at times and that there is no shame in getting help and being open, we inch towards ending the stigma.”

According to Health Canada’s website, 80 per cent of people with mental illness who seek help will get better. Cummins says the important word in that sentence is “seek,” and that he hopes mental health will continue to be openly discussed.

“The best way to describe depression is the feeling of standing in a crowded room and screaming. But no one around you can hear you. That is why we must talk.

“To be heard.”

Depression is like screaming and no one can hear you, Cummins says.  (Brendan Ryder)

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