Everybody Knows a ‘55’: A Conversation with Dave Pogue

The following is a piece written by Unsinkable’s Jody Carrow following her interview with Dave Pogue

 

Dave Pogue’s son, Mitchell, died by suicide in 2013 and ever since Dave and his family have been working to close the gaps in mental health supports in their community of Peterborough, Ontario. Here is our conversation:

I watched the interview you did with PTBOCanada in 2018 and at the time you were about to hold a separate fundraiser to support the Assertive Outreach Suicide Prevention (AOSP) program that Team55 had a hand in creating in partnership with your local Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). Can you talk a bit about that program?

I get a lot of phone calls from people who have taken loved ones to the hospital, to emergency, who have either had an attempted suicide or had serious thoughts. There was one example where a young man had made comments or written a note at school and it came to the attention of the principal and the family. And they brought him in and he claimed that everything was fine. He was discharged and then the next morning he took his life. It’s not the hospital’s fault, but what we thought was that there’s got to be something we can do.

So when we created this program in connection with the hospital, an in-field clinician gets the reference of the people who have come into emerg, and that clinician contacts, within 24 hours, the family or the friends and person who was brought in. They go to their house or they go for coffee or whatever, and right then they start the assessment. They keep that person under their care for a couple of weeks while they assess the level of risk, and then from there they move them into the different programs that are there to help them.

And no one has been lost while in the care of this program. That’s the great news. We think it’s a wonderful program and we asked for money to keep supporting it and, unfortunately, the government has not yet come through with any funding, but we’re going to go after them again this year. Our MPP will likely be at the event again and we’ll ask him the hard questions. I know him well and I know he can handle it. In the meantime, we have our other event and we hope to raise another $10,000 at our Friday Night Lights (FNL). We’ll put that toward the program and keep it going for hopefully at least another year.

(Update from Dave: Friday Night Lights 2019 actually raised a gross $16,500, thanks to a compelling speaker in Richard Clune, a first ever “sold out” raffle, and highest food sales yet over their previous FNL events. A huge success put on by the incredible volunteer staff, and through the unreal donations from food and raffle sponsors.)

 

How can people donate to support this program?

We don’t have a Go Fund Me program, but our Facebook page, Team55 Tackles Suicide Awareness, has information on how to give. All donations for Team55 go to the CMHA here… anybody who’s giving a donation, the donation goes to the CMHA HKPR with a memo line, For Team55.

 

Prior to Mitchell’s suicide, what stigmas did you have personally about suicide?

The stigma that we’re trying to erase is for people who don’t want to talk about mental health issues because they think it’s a weakness. Or they’re afraid to talk about it in their job or circle of friends. If you had a broken arm, everyone would have no problem talking about it.

I never thought about suicide [before Mitchell]…I didn’t have any stigmas myself because it was the furthest thing from my mind. Mitchell was a 23-year-old fireman who had the whole world going for him. He was a well-conditioned athlete and every team he was on they made him the captain of the squad. He was the go-to guy who everybody looked up to, including the family. He was physically fit and the thing was that he was never diagnosed with anything and nobody knew he was struggling from anything.

It was just one day he wasn’t there.

For us, there were so many things and emotions that we had to go through; it was just not something that any of us would even contemplate happening. When we went into the CMHA, it was because we weren’t sure how to deal with things. I think what really resonated for me, was what we felt, from the wake gathering onward – we had thousands of people reaching out to us. And not only were they being compassionate, but I felt real fear from those people… and I think what people were fearful of was, Could this happen in my house? In my family?

And so that’s kind of what got us to start something because you know what? Yes, it could happen in your home, God forbid, if you don’t talk openly; if you don’t know if everybody is okay.

I often go back and psychoanalyze every conversation that I’d had with Mitchell over the years – did he ever say anything that I should have twigged to, you know? I was hyper aware of it at that point and I’m trying to find anything like, “Oh, he said this once, was I supposed to catch on to that?”

And so we decided that we would just start talking about it. We used Mitchell’s story to get it launched, and from there we let him rest. We called it Team55 because that was his football number. We used Team55 Let’s Tackle Suicide to basically say to people that everybody knows a ‘55’ out there.

In our community, it’s very much at the forefront now. People are talking about it all the time. When we started the program, we went to the Adam Scott Junior Football team – where Mitchell started in Grade 9 – and we gathered those kids together and we said, “Here’s the first thing we’re going to do. We’re gonna put our Team55 logo patches on your jerseys.” I had already gone to a bunch of local businesses and got them to agree to donate 1 dollar per tackle that the team made. And I said to the team, “For every tackle you guys make this season, I’m going to get people to pledge money.” I ended up getting 35 companies to back it. And these kids took it seriously and they ended up winning the championship that year, amassing 435 tackles, and raising over $15,000.

One of the other things we said to this Grade 9 football team was, “Here’s the first thing you’re going to do. You’re going to take your jersey home and after dinner you’re gonna throw it on the table and tell your parents what this patch is all about and why you’re wearing it. And we’re going to start the conversation with you guys. You’re going to be our ambassadors.”

Because a lot of times in high schools, the football players are the big tough guys and we thought if they can talk about mental health, then maybe the rest of the kids will follow suit.

 

How do all the athletes in your life get the encouragement and support to talk about their own mental health. What messages do they hear from Team55?

Well now it’s all the football teams in our community. This Friday Night Lights involves all the high school football teams and now we’ve included girls’ rugby and soccer. The ones that take part in our FNL are all put through a safeTALK program which is a 3-hour suicide prevention program. safeTALK originated out in Alberta by a company called LivingWorks and it stands for Suicide Alertness For Everyone – Tell, Ask, Listen, Keep safe. It’s like CPR for mental health. We’ve put all the athletes and coaches through it; we put the Peterborough Petes through it a few years ago as a pilot project and then the whole Ontario Hockey League – and subsequently the Canadian Hockey League – adopted it. And we now have all 62 teams across the country – coaches, billets, players, trainers – everybody taking the course and every team has a mental health coach.

One of the big lessons in safeTALK is: Don’t miss, dismiss, or avoid. And it’s exactly what it sounds like. If somebody says something and it makes you think, That’s kind of odd or strange, a little abrupt, or scary. Don’t miss, dismiss, or avoid.

A lot of people decide they don’t want to talk about it, or it’ll be awkward or uncomfortable, so they’re like, “I’m outta here.”

And you know, it’s the good news stories that I seek… One that I’ve told a few times is about one of our Petes players at high school that made use of his safeTALK program. So this would be a 17-year-old hockey player. The boys on the team had all taken their course in March, this happened in October. He sat down at his desk and he saw that there had been something written on the desk in pencil and kinda smudged out a bit. When he read it he thought, This is either a joke or somebody is struggling. He wasn’t sure what to do. But he said to me, “The first thing I thought of was don’t miss, dismiss, or avoid.”

He called the teacher up and said, “I don’t know who sat at this desk before me but can you read this and tell me if you think it’s a joke or something serious.” The teacher thanked him and immediately left the room to find the principal. She knew exactly the young lady who had sat there before him, and knew she had a bit of a history with some mental health issues, and whatever she wrote was serious enough that they went and found her and she ended up being hospitalized for a couple of months.

That girl is alive because of what he did.

People often ask me, “How do you know these things help?” Well, it’s those stories. They’re the good news stories. And it really starts with conversation and that’s what Team55 is all about.

But the sad part of it is that as a city, as a province, as a country, we’re underfunded in mental health. And under utilized. And the politicians – like our Prime Minister and everybody – they’re saying all the right things but are they putting the money in the right places? And that’s our concern.

 

Does the work you’re doing now inspire you to open up when maybe you wouldn’t have in the past?

Yeah, I would say so. For sure. I’m someone with the full belief that there’s not a person who walks this earth who doesn’t deal with mental health challenges. I believe it all comes down to your coping mechanism. And how you’re able to cope. And I believe everybody’s different with how they cope. My way isn’t necessarily the way that all people would choose, but yeah, it works for me. I heal through talking.

What I’m more hyper-aware of is that in the past I would be oblivious to everybody else. And that’s what I’ve been more hyper-aware of, and that’s why we’re trying to make sure everybody is more aware. There’s lots of people that I know that go through tough times, however, we’re seeing and feeling the change in the air over the last few years in this community. I can see the people around me seem very comfortable, and we can see it in the people around town too, who are more comfortable reaching out for help. I just wish there was a helluva lot more assistance programs out there.

…[W]ith Mitchell. I don’t know if he realized he would have had the support he needed. I’m convinced because of the way he lived his life and challenged himself and kept raising the bar every day and wanted to be the best at everything. I’m sure that whatever it was, he was afraid to tell people.

But I think people in trouble need to make sure they lean on those around them. When we go out to do an event and we’re talking to people, we’re actually talking to two groups. One group is people who have issues they’re dealing with and our message to them is: Tell somebody. And it’s going to be okay if you tell somebody. Tell somebody.

The other group are the people who luckily aren’t suffering from anything that they know of, and what we’re saying to them is to be cognizant of the rest of the people around you and look to help.

We’re talking to 100% of the people. There’s no one who doesn’t belong in this conversation. You either need to make sure you reach out to get the help you need, or you need to be ready to help.

You wouldn’t believe the volunteers we’ve got behind us. I’m almost afraid to ask them to help sometimes, and I often don’t have to, because they’re standing in line asking what they can do next. It’s them making all this happen. I just happen to be the point man who’s not afraid to stand in front of the camera.

 

What advice do you have for people who are either struggling themselves or know someone who is. What can be life-saving? What do people need to know on either side of the coin?

Just that they need to understand that this is not unique to them. There’s not one of us who hasn’t struggled with something. Life is a massive struggle uphill from school to young relationships to first jobs to money and budgets and losing parents and grandparents and divorces in the family…having kids…it’s one challenge after another…The bottom line is if you’re struggling with something, don’t think that you’re alone. Ask for help.

 

Suicide can be such a slippery thing. It is elusive and it can be completely invisible, like in your son Mitchell’s case, until the person is gone. Or it can a persistent issue and threat in people’s lives. When someone repeatedly makes references to their life being not worth living – you never want to miss it, you never want to dismiss it –

And you don’t know what to do about it.

 

Exactly. You don’t know what to do.

And that’s exactly what we have found out there. People will say there’s no point in going on because X has happened. And people dismiss that saying, “Don’t talk so silly.” And the conversation ends. But what’s really there – and that’s the premise of the safeTALK training – is an invitation to have a discussion. Don’t miss that invitation to have a discussion. Don’t just say, “Hey, you don’t mean that. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Instead you say, “When you say that, are you thinking of harming yourself?” Most people don’t want to have that conversation because it’s extremely awkward. But these programs are assuring you, it’s not awkward because what that person is actually doing is throwing something out there to see if someone will bite. And you don’t know if they mean it, but you’ll never know if you don’t ask.

Sometimes they’ll look at you like, “What?! No, I’m not going to do anything.” And you end the conversation may end there, but you’ve had the conversation, and if need be, in future, it’ll be yet easier to have again. Learn where your community’s mental health resources are and have them ready in case you do hear something concerning.

I encourage everyone to go through a course like safeTALK. You don’t have to be mental health accredited expert, but you can learn the language to help other people. All you’re doing is determining how serious a person is. Then if you think it’s serious, you ask to stay with them and get them some help.

 

Thanks so much for your time today, Dave. Much appreciated.

Thank you.