Alexis Fletcher was creative. She loved to paint, draw, knit, and sew. She excelled at fine arts classes at CP Allen where she went to high school. She was a skilled dancer and competed around the Maritimes. Family remember her as sensitive, friendly, and nonjudgmental. She was the youngest of three daughters in the Fletcher family of Bedford. “She was very kind to all her friends,” Bev Fletcher says. “She had lots of friends.”

Alexis also struggled with mental illness.

At first, the symptoms seemed silent. In Grade 10, she wasn’t sleeping well. The family doctor said to make sure she kept her phone out of the room. Fletcher put a lavender aromatherapy candle in there to help her sleep. In Grade 11, one teacher called home to say Alexis had fallen asleep in class.

“But that was the only teacher that ever called me with any concern,” Fletcher says.

Then Alexis started walking at night when she couldn’t sleep. “That’s when I started to get really worried,” Fletcher recalls. She’d often leave home, staying with friends. Their moms would call to say Alexis was there and okay. At one point, Fletcher had Alexis suspended from school because she was using and buying marijuana there.

There were appointments with family doctors and a private psychologist. They worked together to find things to  help Alexis feel happy. She got a job at a local coffee shop.

And they talked.

“She said she felt empty and she didn’t  have any feelings,” Fletcher says. “I didn’t understand that. I would say to her, ‘I see you happy. I see you sad. Those are feelings and emotions, so I don’t understand.’ She had made journals trying to figure out why she was unhappy. There was no trauma. Nothing bad, tragic events, divorces, loss of grandparents.”

Fletcher had family help from her mother and mother-in-law, who took turns being at the family home.

Alexis’ struggles intensified in her last two months.  There were calls to 911. Alexis started cutting herself. She tried medications, including Zoloft, but Alexis said she was having bad headaches, dizziness, and suicidal thoughts.

Alexis was eventually diagnosed with chemical depression. The psychiatrist at the IWK told Fletcher Alexis’s illness was treatable, that she had mild to severe depression. She didn’t feel Alexis was suicidal. That was Friday, December 4, 2015.

Alexis took her own life four days later. She was 17.

“It was so hard trying to get the help and you feel like you’re just going from person to person,” Fletcher says. “We really thought it wasn’t as bad as it was until it was totally out of control.”

After Alexis died, her family started getting money from friends and family, donations in her memory. Bev Fletcher thought about creating a scholarship for arts or dance, which Alexis loved and at which she excelled.

But she decided to put the funds into Believe in Hope, a foundation to help other families and children struggling with mental illness. To date, there is $105,000 in The Alexis Fletcher IWK Adolescent Mental Health endowment, and $10,000 in a trust, to be used in programs in schools that teach students about mental illness.

“I am trying to be a voice,” Fletcher says. “I have lots of moms message me all the time that they are going through similar things. They are scared and everything I say is exactly what’s happening to their children.”

Fletcher gives them an empathic, comforting ear, and the numbers for mental-health lines at the IWK. She says she also receives messages from others who struggled with mental illness when they were teenagers.

“A lot of people are messaging me saying I’m helping a lot of people,” she says.

The Foundation also sells jewelry as a fundraiser. Made by Amos Pewter and designed with a flower pattern based on one of Alexis’ drawings, the jewelry will be sold with profits going back into the endowment fund. Fletcher wears the jewelry herself.

“I get emails from lots of people saying their bracelets bring them lots of strength, that it’s opened up a lot of conversations with people,” she says.

Fletcher says if parents are concerned for their child’s mental health, they need to reach out to others. She says it was the loss of sleep and the marijuana use that were the first signs of Alexis’s illness. (See fact box for signs and symptoms of depression.)

“If they have that gut instinct that things aren’t right with them, to get more help, that it’s really serious,” she says. “I’m trying with the foundation to bridge between the schools and IWK Mental Health to see if we can get better connections between them both so it’s not such a hard system to navigate, so you don’t have to go through so many people to get through to the right people.”

She wants more education, too, for parents, other teenagers, and professionals. Fletcher and many of her family members are trained medical professionals, and they say they didn’t see any need to worry about Alexis. The foundation has offered a way for  the family to heal and give back to others.

“It’s been a really good thing for us to have positive energy through, to feel like we are remembering Alexis but also to help others,” Fletcher says.

And she believes Alexis would have embraced the foundation and its message, too.

“I think she’d love it,” Fletcher says. “She was always trying to help everybody. If it was dancers and organizing everybody to dance, or if someone was worried.  Or even if her cousins had an issue. It was always, I’m going to help, I’m going to help.”

Factbox

IWK Adolescent Intensive Services

iwk.nshealth.ca/mental-health/adolescent-intensive-services

Kids Help Phone

1-800-668-6868

Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team

902-429-8167 or 1-888-429-8167

Behaviour characteristics of clinicial depression

  • Voiced hopelessness
  • increased irritability or agitation
  • lack of energy and excessive fatigue
  • indecision, lack of concentration, or forgetfulness
  • frequent physical complaints such as headache or stomach ache
  • social withdrawal; e.g. from peers and extracurricular activities
  • decrease in grades and missed assignments
  • eating disturbances, weight loss, or weight gain
  • significant sleep disturbances
  • suicidal writings or notes
  • may show addictive behaviour, such as heavy smoking, heavy drinking, heavy use of other drugs, or increased use of these substances

From When Something’s Wrong, Strategies for Teachers, Canadian Psychiatric Research Foundation