TORONTO — We see it in our homes, in our families, in our classrooms, in our workplaces – everywhere! We know it. We often don’t speak of it, but we do know it.
It is mental illness.
Benjamin Elliott Zeligson (Ben) suddenly and unexpectedly took his life on April 6. He was 15 years old.
Ben was overcome by mental illness.
The news of Ben’s passing shocked everyone who knew him, and even those who didn’t know him.
Ben’s parents, Carolann Aitken and Larry Zeligson, found themselves surrounded by a community who gathered in disbelief to mourn the happiest person they knew.
“Ben touched so many people’s lives with his smile, with his lovely sense of humour and his need to have everyone feel included,” Aitken said. “Ben was blessed with the ability to spread love and laughter wherever he went.”
He had many interests, she said.
“Ben was an academic who excelled in languages. Bilingual in French, he spent his weekends Skyping with a woman from China to learn Mandarin. For his most recent birthday, he bought himself Italian tapes to learn Italian, and I have no doubt he would have mastered that if he wanted to.”
He was a regular fixture in the kindergarten and autism classrooms, volunteering during recess and lunch hours to support the students, his mother added.
Inspired by his maternal grandmother, a food lover, Ben loved to cook and to talk about cooking. He loved to read. He sang in the choir at Forest Hill Collegiate, where he was a student.
“Ben was surrounded by a family that loved him immensely and many, many caring friends,” said Julian Jaffary, mother of Ben’s longtime close friend Eric. “When he called his mom or dad from our house he ended each and every conversation with two simple words: ‘Love you.’ Ben enriched everyone around him.”
But, there was another side of Ben. A side that he did not show to others.
“Ben had two separate personality platforms. He had one for the public and another for private,” his father said.
As Ben’s uncle, David Bernstein, put it: “There was a darkness that Ben was fighting, a terrible darkness. The darkness of the illness was so great that it prevented him from accepting the treatment that perhaps could have done something."
“Ben put his best face out there,” Bernstein added, “and it was that of a beautiful, smart, fun-loving boy who was interesting, curious and caring. But, at the same time, he was in so much pain inside. He was so angry all the time but didn’t know why, and the doctors couldn’t help him find out why. His parents tried: they did everything, but no one knew why he couldn’t get a handle on the frustrations of everyday life.
Rabbi Erin Polansky of Neshamah Congregation of York Region said, “He held it in when he was out there in public. He held it in and was like a bottle that was going to explode. When he was in a safe place, with his parents, he allowed it to explode – and when it exploded, it was huge. It was an eruption and he couldn’t control it in the moment. He didn’t mean to hurt the people he loved and he didn’t mean to hurt himself. He just couldn’t make it stop.”
“We must talk about mental illness, give a voice to this terrible disease that affects so many of us,” Rabbi Polansky added. “Ben touched so many people. We can pay that forward and touch so many more.”
Children’s Mental Health Week is May 4 to 10. Its goals are to increase awareness of the signs of child and youth mental health problems, decrease the stigma surrounding the illness and help people understand that help is available and treatment works.
In Ontario, one in five children and youth has a mental health problem, 500,000 kids, according to Children’s Mental Health Ontario. Disorders range from anxiety, depression and conduct disorder to eating disorders, psychoses and bipolar disorder.
In Canada, suicide is the second-highest cause of death for youth aged 10 to 24.
The Canadian Mental Health Association says suicidal youngsters are in pain. They don’t necessarily want to die – they want their pain to end. If their ability to cope is stretched to the limit, or if the problems occur together with a mental illness, it can seem that death is the only way to make the pain stop.
“Ben didn’t want to end his life. He wanted to end his pain,” his father said. “We have to learn to talk about mental illness without a stigma and be able to say, ‘I have a mental illness,’ in the same way as we would say, ‘I have a physical illness.’”
For more information, go to www.kidsmentalhealth.ca