It was a little after midnight on July 4 when Michael Efthimiakopoulos went for a walk on the Jacques Cartier Bridge. A McGill commerce graduate, Efthimiakopoulos loved Pink Floyd, reading and mountain climbing. Summer nights, he'd been known to hike up Mount Royal to watch the sunrise with friends. Winter afternoons, he might hang out in a café reading the newspaper or meet pals for a beer.
But for the last four years, the 47-year-old banker had been struggling with a deepening depression. When his illness began to affect his work, his employer offered to put him on medical leave, providing he enrolled in therapy.
"He refused, because of the stigma," his father recalls. "He didn't want others to know. He was a very proud boy."As his condition worsened and he still refused treatment, the bank let Efthimiakopoulos go.
John Efthimiakopoulos, who retired from the restaurant business last winter, tried to persuade his older son to seek help. " 'If you were a little boy, I would do what has to be done. But now, it's up to you. I have always been proud of you. And I would be so proud of you the moment you take the first step."
"Give me time," Michael told his father. "I'm not ready yet."Michael didn't want to see other people, not even his brother, Peter, on a visit home from his job overseas. Michael's illness wasn't something the family discussed with others.
"When a loved one has a problem with mental illness, even the family does not want to spread it around. In our case, we kept it between us. Why? Because of that stigma," his father says.
"It's so hard when you are there to help your children and you know there is nothing you can do."On the Jacques Cartier Bridge that July night, Efthimiakopoulos was carrying a knapsack in which he had packed a small stepladder. Stopped by police patrolling the bridge, Efthimiakopoulos said he was out for a stroll on a beautiful night. When they asked about the ladder, he said he was moving and had borrowed it from a friend. Suspicious, the officers decided to take Efthimiakopoulos to Notre Dame hospital for observation.
Over the next six hours, Efthimiakopoulos would see three psychiatrists. According to his father, the medical team concluded he was depressed, but did not appear suicidal. Michael Efthimiakopoulos wanted to leave and told the hospital not to call his family. By law, they had no right to keep him.
That evening, Michael met his parents, a Monday ritual John and Anna Efthimiakopoulos had begun after their son became ill. He said nothing of his stroll on the bridge, or his visit to Notre Dame. "To us, he was the same as every other time," his father recalls. Unlike other meetings, when they might make small talk about the stock market, Michael had little to say. He didn't stay long.
Early on the morning of July 12, Michael Efthimiakopoulos climbed to a precipice on Mount Royal, and jumped off. He was alive and able to speak when Urgences Santé brought him to the Montreal General just after 3 a.m. On his way to the operating room, he told hospital staff not to call anybody. He died a few hours later.
In his wallet was a slip of paper with two phone numbers, his own and his parents. Yet it would take a full day before his parents received the call telling them their son was dead. "I've faced mountains in my life. Nothing bothered me. But this is not the same. This is the worst thing that can happen to a father or a mother," John Efthimiakopoulos said.
"When my son was born, I was 20 years old and a waiter at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. And when Michael was born, I felt so rich. - To me, wealth is what you are, not what you have. Family is a very important thing. When Michael died, I felt like I had lost half of my world."He would like to see Quebec review laws governing mental illness to allow family members more say when a loved one is in distress.
"When doctors realize that the person is mentally ill, depressed, there must be an exception. There are always exceptions in life."More urgent, he argues, is greater education, awareness and sensitivity in our society toward people who are suffering from mental illness.
"I'm not an expert. I'm nobody. The only thing I know is that I'm a father whose son committed suicide because of the stigma," said John Efthimiakopoulos, who hopes to launch a website to rally support among others who would like to change laws and attitudes toward mental illness.
"We live in 2011. We have to stop calling these people crazy, erratic, twisted. We have to accept it as a disease of the brain. Condemnation does not liberate. It oppresses," he said.
"My wife said there is nothing we can do. Yes, there is nothing we can do for Michael. But if I can do something to save other lives, other sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, that would be a consolation for me."