GUELPH – After a letter-writing campaign in 2017 calling for a national suicide prevention strategy, Noah Irvine turned his attention to writing a book.
Not just any book; this would be a book about his struggles, but mostly about his parents’ lives.
His mother Lesley Irvine died by suicide when she was 24 and Noah was just five. And his father Kent Martin died from an overdose of prescription drugs when Noah was 15.
Their deaths greatly impacted Noah’s life – a life no child should have to live.
“I’ve seen more funerals than weddings,” the 23-year-old Guelph man said in a phone interview.
“But this book is not to glorify the tragedy but to celebrate hope. I have hope.”
The letter-writing campaign started when Noah was a student at Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute.
His father had Crohn’s disease. He was prescribed pain medication and died from an overdose of prescription drugs while on a waiting list for treatment.
His mother had borderline personality disorder, “which is an incredibly cruel disease. She struggled valiantly,” he said.
“I have very little memory of my mother, but I know she was a caring mother. [Her disease] got the better of her.”
The death of his parents may not have happened if there had been a better mental health system in place, he said.
So between 2017 and 2019, Noah wrote 1,500 letters – a letter to every federal, provincial and territorial elected official in the country, every senator – anyone who might pay attention, asking for better treatment for people with mental illness.
“The government is slowly recognizing that mental health is too large for the Ministry of Health,” Noah said. “But there needs to be a dedicated ministry [of mental health], with funding and service capacity.
“I asked MPs to redouble their efforts to push for better mental health and take action at the national level. Some say this is not a federal matter. I disagree.
“Every Canadian knows someone who is struggling.”
Noah received some letters in response and in the fall of 2022, he spoke to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the phone.
“I’m advocating for removing the stigma, for redoubling efforts and for removing partisanship,” Noah said.
“We need greater leadership across the country. We need a Ministry of Mental Health.”
The book came out of boredom during COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020.
He started writing to pass the time and get his thoughts on paper.
“As I wrote, I went through the ups and downs of my life,” he said. “I lost my parents to a hidden illness. You can’t see it but it’s a real illness. I decided I have an obligation to not hide from this anymore.
“Stigma kills. I want people to think differently and be okay with talking about it.”
He wrote what turned out to be a book in 30 days, he said, and spent a much longer time editing, finessing and tidying it up.
Learning to Live: from the loss of my parents to mental health advocate was published in 2022.
Since then, Noah has had a number of public speaking engagements – at Rotary Clubs, at schools – anywhere anyone would listen. It turns out he likes it, he’s good at it, and his talks really impact his audiences.
He also started a scholarship at Guelph Collegiate – the Lesley Irvine and Kent Martin Memorial Scholarship – which proceeds from the book help to fund.
Noah said he has a learning disability and suffers from complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I didn’t think I’d graduate high school,” he said.
“I was in Grade 9 when my dad died. It was teachers at the school, and my grandparents (who had custody) who helped me. So I want to help others.”
The scholarship goes to students who have also lost one or both parents.
“It recognizes the fortitude it takes to keep going,” Noah said, noting most scholarships only consider grades.
“It’s hugely important to me to recognize students going through hardship. And I wanted to memorialize my parents. It’s been a real joy to me and my proudest achievement.”
Noah turns 24 next month and will graduate in April from the University of Guelph with a degree in political science and history.
Talk about fortitude.
“I continue to defy the odds,” he said.
“That’s why it’s been so important to me to spread the message. And everyone has a role to play.
“Change will happen when enough people say they want a better system.”
For more information or to order the book, visit learningtolivebook.ca.