Family tragedy fuels mental health champion

Barbara Haggarty-Hebert’s message is simple. And heartbreaking.

“If you were having a heart attack or had a concussion, if you had a blood sugar that was plummeting, you’d be seen right away. The earlier the response to any sort of illness, whether physical or mental is critical for a better outcome.”

Haggarty-Hebert’s son, Alexander, struggled with depression during his short life. On Jan. 19, 2009, the 20-year-old took his own life.

In memory of her son, the Student Health Services casual registered nurse, along with husband Paul Hebert, established the Alexander Hebert Endowment Fund. Launched with their personal savings, ongoing fundraising has grown to support a program called First Episode Mood and Anxiety Program (FEMAP).

Launched in 2006 by Dr. Elizabeth Osuch, a psychiatrist at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC), FEMAP helps for older teens (16+) and young adults with emotional concerns who fall into the categories of mood and/or anxiety symptoms. The organization provides “a safe and confidential place for youth to get help early, before symptoms begin to disrupt lives.”

The group provides quality care and conducts innovative research on the causes, preventions and treatments of mood and anxiety disorders.

FEMAP is a part of LHSC’s Adult Mental Health Services, the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and Western.

Haggarty-Hebert takes pride in a program helping so many young people. “They not only do great practical work at FEMAP, but they also do phenomenal research. It’s that combination that has made us so delighted,” she said.

New MRI techniques have advanced mental health diagnoses “which is very challenging,” she added. “Outside someone admitting they’ve got difficulties coping, images of a depressive mind versus a healthy mind are remarkably different.”

To assist in keeping the program running, the Haggarty-Heberts raise funds through music and football, two of Alex’s passions.

In April, the 3rd annual Blues Night was held at London’s Music Hall, hosted by the Great Lakes Blues Society. Through media coverage of that event, a London attorney learned of the endowment fund and approached the couple to help with a donation.

“Bless him,” Haggarty-Hebert said. “Each year, we get our choice of acts to come. And it’s really another great opportunity to reach out to people who care. All the money goes to Alex’s endowment fund; and that all helps the FEMAP house.”

In addition to the fest, there are auction items.

Haggarty-Hebert looks after the donations, “but my husband is the ticket master,” she said.

Other fundraising efforts have included an annual football tournament, organized by Londoner Dave Strano, which raises both money and awareness.

“He has been a real fierce guy to organize our football event and he has such an ability to reach out to these young people from high school. We get CFL players coming back,” she said. “We are very, very grateful to have (Strano) in our court.”

Unfortunately, as enthusiastic as one can be about fundraising, the sums are never enough.  FEMAP closed from December 2012 to mid-May, during which time 140 people attempted to access their services. FEMAP re-opened its doors to new patients who are willing and able to participate in clinical studies.

“They have so much to give and they want to contribute,” she said of the troubled youth. “They don’t want to be ‘That Person’ with that burden of not being who they are when they look in the mirror. They want that person back in the deepest of ways.”

For their continued efforts, the couple recently received the Champion of Mental Health Award, presented by the Canadian Mental Health Association at its Breakfast of Champions event this spring. Her family, including two sons who have also become advocates of adolescent mental health in their own ways, has been described as tireless advocates for mental health and initiatives to combat stigma.

In 2010, Haggarty-Hebert won a Western Award of Excellence.

She believes the government is slowly changing its views on mental health to contribute more funding. But it’s never enough. “It’s not just getting kids to talk,” she said. “You need someone to listen. And that’s the part that drives us to keep our motivations up.”

Even so, as the family talks about these issues publicly and continues to raise funds, they relive the loss.

“At the depth of it all is love. But it’s hard,” Haggarty-Hebert said.  “It’s still very challenging personally.”

Leslie Kostal, Economics web administrative assistant, writes periodic pieces profiling Western staff members. If you have an interesting story to tell, please e-mail her at