Valerie, a former Markham councillor, lost her beloved mother to mental illness 40 years ago.
Her mother, Ruth Ruddock, was a classical concert pianist, and had performed at both Massey Hall and Carnegie Hall in her younger years. She ended her performing career after having children, but continued to teach piano privately, and accompany students for years at the Kiwanis festival.
Yet as Valerie grew up, her mother suffered from a worsening depression – an illness that, at the time, was simply not discussed.
“At first I didn’t know how I was going to tell the truth, because I was ashamed and worried that they would be judgmental,” Burke recalled in her speech at the first High Notes Gala back in 2014.
She acknowledges now that the signs of trouble were clearer in hindsight, but were simply not recognizable at the time in an era when mental illness was rarely discussed. Her mother, for her part, was masterful at hiding her illness. She put on a good show at the doctor’s office, and did not even alert her family to her suffering.
“I should have…I could have….I should have been more on the ball in seeing the signs,” Valerie says today.
Valerie still remembers her mother’s last phone call to effectively say goodbye – one that she rushed because she was too busy at work to make conversation. The next phone call came from her brother, telling her that her mother had passed away at the age of 61. At the time, the family told people that the cause of death was heart failure – a cloaking of the truth in order to avoid judgment.
Four decades later, the loss is still a painful one, and still difficult to speak about.
Back then, it launched Valerie into her own bout with depression, and her sadness over the loss still lingers. She recalled the pain of hearing ignorant and judgmental comments from others about her mother’s ‘copping out ‘, knowing that even she did not fully understand the pain that her mother was in.
Valerie herself moved on to a successful career, spending over a decade on Markham City Council. It was as the Ward 1 Councilor that she was asked to promote the first High Notes Avante event in her constituent newsletter. She leapt at the chance and has supported every High Notes Avante gala since and is also a proud donor, never missing a chance to promote the organization and its work.
“It’s meant the world to the community. It’s helped erase the stigma of suicide.”
She calls High Notes Avante founder Ingrid Taheri a “bright light, a beacon of hope” for the work that the program has done to shine a light on mental illness.
“It’s almost like a healing with what happened to my mother,” says Valerie. “I’m actually doing something positive to help other people, and to try and erase the stigma of mental health.”
Valerie has also learned the importance of being open with her own emotions, especially when she hears of other families who are dealing with the impact of losing a loved one to suicide.
“You feel like it’s your fault,” says Valerie – a misconception that she has worked hard to dispel.
She understands the challenges that those touched by mental illness and their loved ones face, with most illness being so intangible, and the signs often difficult to notice.
Yet her message for everyone touched or impacted by mental illness is crystal clear.
“You’re not alone,” says Valerie. “There’s a lot of support out there.”