The crowd hadn’t yet settled into their seats when Mark Henick said:
“I was in the eighth grade the first time I tried to kill myself.”
The room became quiet. Henick paused for a moment, allowing his opening statement to sink in, and then he introduced himself.
Henick’s lecture on depression and suicide is a personal subject. He’s knowingly lived with for 8 years, although he believes he’s been unlike most people his entire life.
As a teenager trying to cope in a blended family in a rough neighbourhood in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Henick realized nobody was looking. Nobody looked until he pulled a knife from his bag while sitting in an office with the guidance counsellor.
“He just asked me, he recoiled a little, I remember that, he just asked me what I was going to do. I could hear his, I could hear the quiver in his voice as he asked me what, what I was going to do.”
Henick had left his classroom and wandered down to the cafeteria to ask for a long knife. He told the teacher there he’d been sent to get one to cut a cake in class. Henick’s requirements for the knife were quite specific; long, straight edged and non-serrated.
After securing the knife, he wandered around the school for awhile eventually going to the counsellor’s office.
“I went in and I was having this fight with myself. Well what am I doing now? I had this all planned out, but it didn’t seem like a great idea anymore.”
Whether too stubborn to give up on the idea or too desperate in his darkness to carry on Henick didn’t say but he twice refused the counsellors request to give up the knife.
“As I said ‘No’ I held the knife by the blade, I don’t know why, it had a handle,” he paused and chuckled. “But anyway, I held the knife by the very end of the blade… and I squeezed the knife in my fist, and I held it up to my throat… I could feel the blood dripping down my hand and down my arm because I was squeezing the blade. He said my name, he said Mark could you give me the knife please, then I said ‘No, I can’t do that. I need to do this’…”
Henick said they sat there for what seemed like forever until he got to a point of “almost clarity.”
“I came to a point where I just stopped thinking. I took a deep breath, I closed my eyes, and just before I pushed it into my throat he tackled me.”
Henick’s graphic testimony of this, his first of many attempts to commit suicide, is deliberate. He knows if he’s still feeling uncomfortable talking about it and the audience is uncomfortable hearing about it then there’s still a lot of work to be done de-stigmatizing mental illness.
This was Henick’s fourth and last lecture at St. Thomas University. He graduates in the spring. Henick said when he first started the lectures he had only six or seven people listen to him, gradually expanding over the years.
“This was actually the biggest crowd I’ve ever had… I was pretty surprised when I looked back and saw that the room was full.”
Many students were present as well as some faculty and the director of counselling services for the University of New Brunswick.
Psychology students Erin Flower and Leanna Garrett waited their turn to speak with Henick after his lecture. Both had strong impressions of his story.
“It was really good to hear his experience and hear how he coped with it,” said Flower
Samara Young is in her third year studying psychology and criminology. She has heard stories like Henick’s before while counselling youths in the Yukon, she admired his courage to be so open.
Henick can’t recall the exact number of attempts he’s made to take his own life but he did relive one which he said was the closest he’d come to dying. Henick put down his note book and prepared to climb up onto a table in front of the crowd.
“Actually I’m going to take my boots off so I don’t kill myself, that’d be kind of ironic,” he said to a chorus of laughter.
All joking aside, Henick was making it real, reliving his attempt to jump off a highway overpass.
“I climbed over the railing… I could feel the concrete, I could feel my toes dangling over, there was about five stories below me at least.”
Henick struggled with the memory more than once as he stood on the table, arms outstretched, eyes closed, face scrunched up with concentration. He describes the bridge being closed off and people lined up on each end. The bar crowd heading home, police officers preparing to intervene. Henick recalls one person yelling at him ‘jump you coward.’
“I again had a moment where I just cleared my thoughts, just stopped thinking… took a deep breath, took my hands off the railing, and I just let myself start to fall. It felt so good.”
Henick paused a moment to clear his throat, apologized, and then carried on in a trembling voice.
“It was the first time I felt free in my less than two decades of life. Before I could fall I felt somebody’s arm grab me from around the back. I don’t know who it was, I still never did find out.”
Later Henick praised the unselfish efforts of the man who had saved him. He told his audience anyone of them had the power to change lives.
“The person who pulled me over that railing on the overpass, I never met in my life, never met him again. I don’t know his name, I’ve always wanted to thank him, but that’s not why he did it. He didn’t do it to be thanked. He did it because he saw somebody on the edge, and reached out. So I ask these things of you, to be the person who reaches out.”