Erika Nicole Elkington was born in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, on September 6, 1985. The eldest of three, she was an accomplished triathlete who swam and rowed competitively. She loved nothing more than to travel and learn something new along the way. By the time she was 29, Erika had visited more than 20 countries, earned three degrees and spoke five languages. But on August 6, 2015, one month away from her 30th birthday, Erika Nicole Elkington died by suicide.
It was a devastating loss, one that Erika’s family and friends have struggled to understand.
“You know, we did not see this coming at all,” says her mother, Sabrina Elkington. “Now, there’s hindsight, and going back through her life you can see things that were possibly small cries for help.”
Before Erika’s passing, her family had lost five different people they knew to suicide, yet at their funerals no one would speak about what had happened to them. However, Erika’s family was determined to honour the person she had been, the person who had lived her life by three words: perseverance, passion and integrity.
And so, during her celebration of life, on August 19, 2015, they decided to break the silence about the condition that had taken Erika’s life.
“When people die by suicide, nobody really speaks about it, everyone just covers it up,” says Bill Elkington, Erika’s father. “We wanted to change the conversation and get people talking about it. The issue is really removing the stigma.”
"We wanted to change the conversation and get people talking about it. The issue is really removing the stigma."Bill Elkington
During the ceremony, Bill gave a small presentation about suicide and challenged each of the 1,200 attendees to go home and ask their loved ones if any of them had ever considered self-harm. Over the next few months, 20 people responded. They’d asked the question and they’d discovered that many in their lives were in danger—so now what?
For the Elkingtons, the question “What do we do now?” became a call to action. A year later, they created the Erika Legacy Foundation, an organization that supports research into innovative approaches to mental wellness.
One of the first things they discovered was that mental illness affects many more people than they’d realized. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, each year, one in five Canadians experience one of a range of disorders, from depression and anxiety to addiction, that affect their mood, thinking and behaviour. Most of these problems start in childhood or adolescence, with young people between the ages of 15 to 24 being more likely to experience mental illness than any other group.
However, many young people who struggle with their mental health don’t speak up for fear of being stigmatized. In Canada, 40 percent of respondents to a 2016 CAMH survey said they’d had feelings of anxiety or depression but never sought help.
This reluctance can lead to tragic consequences. In Canada, suicide is the second-highest cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds, after accidents. Some of these cases are high-achieving perfectionists like Erika, who, beneath their popular, smart and athletic exteriors, were also depressed and relentlessly self-critical.
“We were so proud of how accomplished our daughter was,” says Sabrina. “But we were just as proud of her when she was a little less accomplished; it just wasn’t enough for her—in her mind.”
"We were so proud of how accomplished our daughter was."Sabrina Elkington
Learning how to cultivate wellness early in life can lead to massive changes in life outcomes. So, in 2018, the Erika Legacy Foundation joined with WE to help build the WE Well-being initiative. The program works with schools and families across Canada to reduce the stigma of mental illness and give young people the tools they need to increase their positive self-awareness and cultivate safe and caring relationships.
The Elkingtons hope that by reaching out to the over 4.3 million young people—including more than 16,000 schools and groups—engaged with WE Schools programming, they can help promote the skills and habits that will allow young people to understand and take care of their overall mental and physical health.
Perhaps in this way they can keep what happened to Erika from happening to others.
“We’re trying to change things so that people can understand and take care of each other,” says Bill. “If we can, we’ll have far more productive and safer communities—and a lot fewer tragic outcomes.”
Learn more about WE’s proactive approach to positive well-being.
For information on mental health resources and support in your community, visit the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Chinelo Onwualu is a writer, editor and shameless dog person. A communications consultant who's lived in 7 countries, she loves a good story whether she's the one telling it or not.