Earlier this summer, I interviewed activist Hannah Alper. She described a new friend of hers as “amazing” and someone who was “going to do big, big things.” That person is Jacob Grosberg, a 15-year-old Torontonian who lost his dad, Ben Grosberg, to suicide just over a year ago. And those big, big things? Well, that would be The CONAN Fund, the mental health charity he co-founded with his Mom, Alli Grosberg, for starters. And then there’s his public speaking work which has taken him into schools and all the way to WE Day Toronto 2019.
Jacob is now a fierce advocate for improving access to, and availability of, mental health supports in his community but really, he has his sights on the whole world. After talking to him, I agree with Hannah: big, big things indeed. Here is our conversation:
In your ideal world, what would a healthy mental health system look like?
For starters, when my dad was showing proof of feeling suicidal and that he was actually going to end his life, we showed that proof to a psychiatrist in the hospital and she didn’t admit him even though there was literal proof that he was thinking of ending his life.
I think when there is actual proof that someone is thinking of ending their life and there is proof of them feeling suicidal, that they should be admitted and given a psychiatric assessment. Because what this horrible doctor did was not okay. She caused me and my family a horrible pain that will never go away.
And so I want to make change for that. I want there to always be support —there should always be support out there for people who need it. As a youth, I’ve been through the mental health system because I struggled with anxiety and some learning disabilities before my dad’s death, and it was a horrible system then. Even now I sometimes have to wait 3 months to meet a psychiatrist – it’s unbelievable.
It’s so disappointing that unless the words “I’m suicidal” come out of the patient’s mouth, they won’t do anything. It’s so disappointing because people who are really depressed and want to end their life are not going to tell you that. They’re not going to say, “I’m going to kill myself. Save me.” That’s not what their brain is making them think. So unfortunately, a lot of deaths are caused by that.
I need there to be more support out there. Even for someone like my dad: he had proof that he was suicidal and the doctor wouldn’t admit him. And 10 days later he died. And that is something that needs to be changed and me and my mom are going to work so hard to make sure that change happens.
Can you tell me a bit about your family?
My mom is a jeweler – it’s a family run business and it’s called Alli’s Originals. She’s really well known in our area and she makes beautiful stuff.
My dad was a RMT and he ran a massage therapy college in Toronto called Royal Canadian Massage Therapy, which my mom now runs very successfully.
I was born with my mom and dad here in Toronto; I’m an only child. About 2 years ago my parents surprised me one day by telling me that they were getting me a service dog. Before everything happened with my father, I did suffer with anxiety; I did experience anxiety and ADHD. So they told me they were getting me a companion dog from National Service Dogs for me… and the first time I met my baby it was love at first sight. She is the best dog in the entire world. She is just so awesome.
I don’t know what I’d do without her because she’s my healer. Dogs are the best things on earth.
Can you tell us more about your mental health story?
When I was first aware that I had anxiety and ADHD I didn’t really understand it because I was at a young age and I didn’t know what it was. I was first diagnosed in Grade 1. Something I will always remember is that my Grade 1 teacher made fun of me for blinking a lot. I couldn’t control it and so it was very embarrassing for me to realize it was something I should be able to control. I was so young that I didn’t realize it wasn’t ‘normal’.
So in my mental health journey up to before my dad died, it was just kind of a back and forth thing. My anxiety never really went through the roof until my dad died because that’s when everything got really bad.
My dad’s death has affected my mental health both positively and negatively. I know that’s going to sound really stupid, but I believe there’s always a reason for stuff to happen in life – like me and my mom were put together to make a change and empower others. So it’s really given me a different point of view because I would never have imagined that suicide was even a thought in my dad’s head. After he died, it just kind of shocked me. Like, Wow, our system is so horrible. And I need to make sure that support is going to get offered to others because he didn’t get that support.
It did affect my anxiety a lot, though. It’s through the roof now. I’m working on it a lot and I have a really, really excellent mother who is always there for me to help calm me down. Together we are working on our anxiety and making a change. I’m really grateful to have her. I couldn’t survive without her. She is my healer; she’s someone I look up to. When she was my age she lost her mother and when I look at her now she is this strong, proud, great person that I want to be like when I’m older. I’ve always looked up to her.
When your anxiety starts to go through the roof, what does that look like for you and what helps you?
When I suffer with anxiety, I find music is really healing for me. I listen to my favourite songs, most of which are by Tom Petty. I love Tom Petty. I always like to do breathing and meditation. That’s something my mom and dad have always taught me is mindfulness. So being mindful and breathing (four in, four out).
Another technique is to try to put your thumbs together as close as possible without actually touching them. It distracts you and also you really have to focus. It’s great for me to do that. Also, talking to myself and saying, “This is just a bump in the road; everything is going to be okay.”
And remembering the good times in my life that were even just yesterday. Knowing that those great moments are going to come again is a really important part of healing and dealing with anxiety.
How do you trust that there will be a better day in the future?
Because I know there will be. Me and my mom have had really happy days – we just had a great Thanksgiving with all our friends and family and I even thought about it then, like, See? You’re going to be okay; you can be happy. Really remembering those happy times are important.
I’m very spiritual. I believe my dad sends me these healing moments and energy to let me know that I’m going to be okay. I know he’s always going to be there making sure me and my mom are going to be okay.
Have you struggled with your dad’s decision to end his life?
Yes and no. At the beginning I didn’t understand why he did it. But I’ve been talking to a lot of people and I understand that it wasn’t his fault. I understand that he was mentally sick and we couldn’t help him anymore.
And it wasn’t his decision to do it. It was depression’s decision. I know it wasn’t his fault because he would have never done that to me and my mom.
What was he like as a person?
He was so giving and kind – he called everyone ‘brother’. He was always full of compliments; he was always telling everyone that they are awesome. He was someone you could really trust and talk to. I always had so much fun with him. We would go for dinners, to the mall, to the cottage and just hang out. He was always someone I could really rely on.
It does speak a lot to the depth of his character and his own resilience – to hear you speak that way about him reflects so much of who he was to be able to be that person to you and so many others and be depressed and struggling to stay here at the same time. He sounds like a beautiful man.
He was an excellent man.
Can you please talk more about the team you and your mom have become?
Yeah, sure. I think one thing that has really improved in me and my mom’s relationship is that I have never been as close to anyone in my entire life and I’ve never been as connected to anyone in my entire life. This tragic death has brought us together to make a change. I can’t even explain it to you: she’s my role model, she picks me up when I’m feeling down, she’s just the one who’s always there for me. We just became such a strong team.
People look at us like they’re shocked we’re surviving and we’re also making a change. We became such an excellent team and we’re inspiring change to make sure that eventually this never happens to anyone else again. What we’ve been through is horrible and we want to make it so that nobody else has to go through this. We’re really getting to the root of the broken system and getting to make that change.
It’s a mission that comes as collateral damage, but it’s no small thing – when it’s been just over a year – to turn that kind of grief into this level of action the way you and your mom have.
We call it: Pain to Power. We turn our pain into power. We are taking our pain and using it to make a change. My mom came up with pain into power when this first happened, and it’s something I return to over and over. The system failed us, but we are going to make sure that those who really need it are not failed like this ever again.
And knowing that we’re doing this for my dad and that he would be proud of us is also what’s really helping to keep us going. Obviously we have sad days and sad moments, but we really, really want to make a change.
When the grief is raw how do you manage?
It’s really hard, to be honest with you, and I don’t even know how I manage on those days because my mom is always there to do something to make sure I’m calm. I take a lot of relaxing time; I always talk to people and I want to include that there is always someone you can talk to, you just have to reach out for the support. It doesn’t matter if it’s a stranger or if it’s your best friend. There’s always someone you can talk to. And that’s really important. I have a lot of people I can talk to in my life and I think that’s a big part in helping me move forward.
What do you think youth either don’t know or need to know or misunderstand about suicide and mental health?
Something that I’ve noticed in high school is that suicide is kind of taken as a joke sometimes. It’s like an epidemic [the making a joke of it]. You hear people saying all the time, “Oh my god, I’m going to kill myself.” Well, that’s not funny. Suicide is a very, very sensitive topic that needs to not be treated as a joke. And schools need to put more awareness on this.
I also want people to know that even though this has traditionally been a hard topic to talk about, I want to change that by opening the conversation about suicide prevention. It’s really tragic when you lose someone to suicide. I want people to know that suicide is not a choice. It’s when someone is sick and that’s what their brain makes them do. The person that they knew is not the person who made that decision.
Suicide is not anyone’s fault. Some people might feel guilty, but suicide is not anyone’s fault. It’s not even the person’s fault who has taken their life. It’s mental illness.
What is gained when we talk more openly about suicide awareness and prevention?
We’re making people more aware that there is always hope and that there is always a way out of things. People don’t always know that because their brain is making them think that there isn’t a way out. But there’s always a way out. And talking about finding a way out, and talking about making a change, and talking about being okay is really important to spread so that people can hear it and believe and heal a bit. And then start to share their stories of success and then the world will just become one huge success story that way. It’s going to take a lot of work but I’m prepared to do it. And I know my mom is too. And I hope thousands and millions of people are prepared to do that, too.
Do you have advice for anyone out there who has just lost a parent or a sibling or a friend to suicide?
That you’re going to be okay and that there is a way through this. That the person who died by suicide wouldn’t want you to feel guilty; you have to move forward because that’s what they’d want. And there’s always someone to talk to.
If someone reading this is considering ending their life, what would you say to them?
I would tell them that they’re going to be okay and that there’s hope. There is always hope. There are people who will love them and care for them; maybe they just haven’t met them yet. And they need to advocate for themselves. It may be hard to advocate for yourself if you’re feeling suicidal, but I want them to know that there is support and they will be okay. They just have to reach out.
Jacob, thanks so much for talking to us today.
Thank you so much.