As a doctor, Pat Smith has made it his life’s work to help people get better.

In more than 30 years of family medicine, nothing has cut more deeply than losing a patient to mental illness and suicide.

In the past year, the pain reached new depths with the loss of a niece and a nephew to suicide.

“It’s a heartbreaking and frustrating thing for me,” Smith said.

Both his niece and nephew were intelligent, athletic individuals supported by a loving family.060109_council03

Their loss at the age of 18 and 23 prompted Smith and nine others to form a local committee to raise awareness about the widespread incidence of mental illness in our young and the sobering statistics of youth suicide.

Research shows 3,500 Canadians die by suicide each year and almost 800 are young people. The Canadian Mental Health Association says suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people age 10-24 after motor vehicle accidents.

Stigma Enigma is the tag Smith and the rest of the committee have given their campaign which launches Oct. 22 at Maryvale Adolescent Centre.

The committee hopes to raise money to support Maryvale’s mental health programs and encourage open dialogue about suicide among youth using basketball as a forum.

Pat Smith was a high school all-star basketball player while attending Riverside and many of his siblings also excelled at the sport. Likewise, his niece Sophie and nephew Geoff embraced the game growing up in London.

“We’ve strategically targeted that group of young athletes and leaders to hopefully be able to pass the message on,” Smith said.

Stigma Enigma has partnered with the Freeds Tip Off Tournament for senior boys’ high school basketball, which is run annually by Catholic Central coach Pete Cusumano.

This year’s tournament features 24 teams from across the province. An audience of 350 kids will attend the tournament’s banquet Nov. 28 and listen to a talk from former Detroit Lions’ quarterback Eric Hipple who lost his 15-year-old son to suicide.

Files:  Eastern High School of Commerce Saints Brandon Sam-Hinton takes a long look at a shot as Catholic Central's head coach Pete Cusumano directs the defence during the OFSAA senior boys AAAA semi-final game at St. Clair College Tuesday March 10, 2009. (Nick Brancaccio / The Windsor Star)

“Mental illness is the dirty little secret nobody wants to talk about,” said Cusumano, who is also on the Stigma Enigma committee. “You never know which kid it’s going to be or when it’s going to be. The odds are it could be one of those kids in the (banquet) audience. We might be hitting some kids directly.”

Cusumano coached Geoff Smith one summer on a regional all-star team.

“He was such a great kid. Very polite,” he recalled. “I was heartbroken. It was horrible.”

The group’s initial fundraiser, Nov. 8 at Walkerville Brewery, is already a sellout at 150 tickets sold. That night’s audience will hear from Aisha Alfa, a motivational speaker, Ted Ball, a health policy consultant, and Jordan Smith, older brother of Sophie and Geoff.

While a portion of the evening’s proceeds go towards funding the Freeds’ banquet, the bulk of the money generated will go to Maryvale.

“I’ve had a lot of frustration with mental health care,” Pat Smith said. “Mental illness really touches a lot of families. A lot of people don’t want to talk about suicide. That’s our mission. We want people to be comfortable talking about it.”

Maryvale’s executive director is thrilled to have a new source of community support.

“The real pressure for us is to have more money for counsellors,” said Maryvale executive director Connie Martin. “We have a good day treatment program but we need counsellors for followup.”

Maryvale treats 700 teenagers annually “and half of them are desperate for counselling,” Martin said.

The facility has just three counsellors available for at-home followup sessions.

The committee’s long-term goal is to have fundraising for mental illness reach the same high profile as cancer or heart and stroke.

“Mental health care is underfunded,” Smith said. “Maryvale has suffered cutbacks in government funding. We have to make people aware of places like Maryvale. My goal is to bring mental illness up to the level with cancer here in the community. Then people can really benefit from getting the proper care.”