Ginny Dennehy didn’t plan to be a crusader for mental health. Or to be heading into her golden years watching her friends attend their children’s weddings and becoming grandparents, with no prospect of doing so herself.
But after losing her two children in separate tragedies, that is the course her life has taken.
Ginny and her husband Kerry first mourned the loss of their 17-year-old son Kelty in 2001, and then lost their 23-year-old daughter Riley in 2009.
Kelty died by suicide after being overwhelmed by clinical depression and seeing no other way out of his personal darkness.
Riley passed away in Thailand after being prescribed too strong a sedative to treat a separated shoulder.
Any parent faced with the loss of all of their children would have a hard time returning from the abyss of grief, but Ginny and Kerry decided to channel their grief and focus on helping others.
In recognition of the work that she has done to spread awareness about and promote treatment of mental illness, and the important social impact that her actions have had, Ginny Dennehy will receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of the Fraser Valley at its June 12 afternoon Convocation ceremony.
“When I was at the hospital wishing I could will Kelty back to life while he was on life support, and then realizing that I couldn’t, I decided then and there that I had to do something to help other families in this situation,” she recalls. “We knew nothing about fundraising or running a charitable foundation, but with the help of friends and family we were successful in launching one fairly quickly.”
Out of the tragedy of Kelty’s death came the Kelty Patrick Dennehy Foundation, with a mandate of preventing depression-related suicide in young people. Ginny and Kerry have each taken a turn being president, with Ginny currently holding the post.
Since its inception, the Kelty Foundation has raised nearly $7 million towards care, education, and research projects in the area of youth mental health. Initiatives the foundation has supported include the Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre at B.C. Children’s Hospital, a research chair focused on depression at UBC, the B.C. Crisis Line for youth suicide prevention, and mental health services at Lions Gate Hospital.
“Mental health is a prevalent social issue dominated by stigma and ignorance. Ginny Dennehy, from tragic first-hand experience, pursued change, education, facilities, and programs dedicated to youth mental health,” noted Dr. Joanne MacLean, Dean of Health Sciences at UFV, who nominated Ginny Dennehy for the honorary degree.
“Suicide was the result for Kelty, but the real problem was severe clinical depression,” says Dennehy. “And there is so much stigma surrounding that. People feel like it’s somehow their fault. But it’s a disease like diabetes or asthma, and we need to focus on treatment so that we can prevent these tragic outcomes.
“If there had been the resources we have helped to create available in 2001, it would have been easier for us to find help for our family. I get so many phone calls and emails thanking us for creating the Kelty Centre at B.C. Children’s Hospital and funding other services that help people in need.”
Dennehy stresses that there is hope for young people suffering from depression.
“Just because a child suffers from mental illness doesn’t mean they can’t lead a happy, healthy life. But they will have to have to deal with their illness to do so — you can’t ignore it. And when someone’s in that kind of pain, it is devastating for the entire family.”
Recognizing that not everybody feels comfortable walking through the doors of a hospital to seek help, the Kelty Foundation is also funding online services for young people suffering from depression. The Vancouver Coastal Health initiative will combine online learning modules with therapist-assisted cognitive behavioural therapy.
With no children’s weddings or grandkids in their future, Ginny and Kerry have had to learn how to survive and have the best kind of life they can, despite their tragic story.
Her book Choosing Hope, co-authored with Vancouver Sun journalist Shelley Fralic and published in 2013, outlines how she and Kerry coped and built a new life for themselves, one focused on helping others in memory of their children.
Also in 2013, they cycled across Canada on what they called the Enough is Enough ride, stopping in 34 communities to advocate for more resources for the treatment of mental illness.
“We had to figure out how to go on, and one of the ways we did so was by asking ourselves what Kelty and Riley would have wanted us to do,” she recalls. “We think they would be proud of what we’ve done in their memory. We’ve done the best we could with the life we ended up having.
“And we also take time to remember how unbelievably fortunate we were to have the time we did with our kids. I told them I loved them all the time and they told me the same back. That is so important. I was so glad I was able to show them I loved them. You never think you’re going to lose one child, and it was unfathomable that we should lose two.
“I think they would be happy that Kerry and I have drawn strength from each other and stayed together and weathered the storm — many couples don’t when they lose a child.”
As for earning an honorary doctorate for her advocacy work, Dennehy says that she was “absolutely shocked” but also delighted when she heard the news.
Find out more about the Kelty Patrick Dennehy foundation at www.thekeltyfoundation.org.