Windsor family points to pandemic after son takes his own life

His parents are urging that more be done for those who are struggling.

Windsor Star 8 minute read August 24, 2021

Phil Janisse poses with a photo of his son Matt and his grandchildren Oliver and Theodore at his Windsor home on Monday, August 16, 2021. Matt died by suicide in January 2021. Dan Janisse / Windsor Star

Matthew Janisse never caught COVID-19, but his father still blames the novel coronavirus for the death of his Windsor son at the age of 25.

For Matt — Phil Janisse’s “mini-me” and a Riverside boy through and through — the mental anguish seemed to arrive during the pandemic and snowballed over months as it progressed until Jan. 13, when he took his own life.

“It’s unbelievable that he’s gone,” Janisse, 58, told the Star through tears seven months after Matt’s death. “I cry every morning — I can’t function.”

Matt had two little boys of his own who he loved and adored — Theodore, 3, and Oliver, 2 — and he was incredibly generous, Janisse said.

In recent years, Matt worked as a truck driver, a snowplow operator, and with a paving company. He helped care for his younger sister, Emilee, 22, who has special needs, and he gave the best hugs.

When it came to his own challenges, “he internalized everything,” and, like his dad, “he wore a big happy face all the time, was the life of the party. But deep down inside he was hurting.”


Phil Janisse now wants to see more attention paid to mental health and suicide awareness. Since Matt’s death, he and Matt’s mother, Nicole Janisse, have found counsellors and regularly receive support from Julien’s House, which offers bereavement services in Windsor-Essex.

Both, however, are urging that more be done for those who are struggling.

“You don’t ever want to experience what other families are going through,” said Nicole Janisse, whom Matt was living with when he died by suicide. “It’s a pain that will never go away.”

Despite the pandemic’s devastating and widely documented toll on mental health, data from Statistics Canada obtained by the Star show suicide deaths in Windsor-Essex have actually been on the decline. In 2017, 55 suicides were recorded locally, followed by 45 in both 2018 and 2019, and 25 in 2020. In the first four months of 2021, five suicide deaths were recorded.

It’s possible the data, which the national statistical office rounds to multiples of five and which may be updated if more regional and provincial information is received, might be flawed or incomplete. But global studies show a drop in suicides during the pandemic across Canada and in many other high- and upper-middle-income countries. As such, Dr. Corina Velehorschi, Windsor Regional Hospital’s chief of psychiatry, said she isn’t surprised to see the same trend locally.

“I think it was policy-making that bolstered a safety net, and improving access to mental health care to mitigate harms of the pandemic,” said Velehorschi in explaining the decline in suicide deaths. Governments offered financial assistance for those who lost income during lockdowns that were meant to stop the spread of COVID-19 — the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), for example.

They also made mental health support more widely available remotely and for free, allowing access for those who might not have been comfortable with in-person treatment before the pandemic, or who might not have been able to afford existing mental health services.

Looking at the data, Velehorschi stressed the importance of remembering that each figure is a “real life lost and real families devastated,” no matter how many or how few suicides occur.

Additionally, the data does not indicate how many individuals died from overdoses, which may or may not be intentional. Those deaths are classified by Statistics Canada as “unintentional injuries (accidents),” and include fatal car crashes and other accidents causing death.

For Matt, accessing services remotely was not the answer. Nicole Janisse said he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in a single phone call with a psychiatrist, and prescribed a medication that only seemed to make her son feel worse.

“I did everything I could to keep Matthew going,” she said. “To me, it’s almost like the system failed him.”

Matt, a “kind soul who loved life” and who used to make his presence known the moment he entered a room, had shut off, moving through the world like a robot. No matter how many phone calls his mother made to mental-health professionals, never giving up the fight to keep her son alive, she was unable to convince them to change his treatment, even as he continued to decline, and even following a suicide attempt the week before his death.

She’s encouraging others with loved ones who are struggling not to give up advocating for a treatment that works, no matter how long it takes.

“Because of this pandemic, he couldn’t go out to see the psychiatrist, he couldn’t go out to see the doctor,” said Nicole, a career nurse.

Whether or not things would have turned out differently for him if in-person help had been available, she doesn’t know. She’d like to see mental health treated like a gaping wound, with a community nurse following up on those struggling after they’ve been assessed and sent home from the emergency room.

“Why do we have to delay mental health?” she asks. “This is a ticking time bomb that’s going to go off.”

On a population level, Velehoschi said pandemic recovery can be as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than the pandemic’s acute phase when it comes to people’s mental health. While not wanting to sound alarmist, she said individuals will likely face different stresses during recovery than they did when they were solely focused on protecting themselves from the virus — such as relationship strains and financial losses.

Ewelina Horochowik talks about suicide awareness in her role as a mental health educator with the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Windsor-Essex County branch. She told the Star those conversations involve debunking myths about suicide and letting people know what resources are available to them if they don’t feel capable of keeping someone safe on their own.

“Most people who are having thoughts of suicide are undecided because the choice between life and death is a really big choice,” Horochowik said. “There’s hope in that uncertainty, and there are people out there and places out there that want to help keep you safe.”

Throughout September, which is Suicide Awareness Month, the Canadian Mental Health Association and other community partners will be holding various events aimed at creating awareness about suicide. Pandemic permitting, some of those events, including an annual walk, will be held in person.

Anyone interested in participating in any events can visit for more details.

The CMHA also offers suicide awareness workshops through its applied suicide intervention skills training (ASIST) program, as well as upcoming online seminars about a variety of topics, including grief, bereavement, the benefits of exercise and mental health, and more. A list of online events and training dates are also available through the organization’s local website.

“I think that we’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons throughout COVID,” said Jonathan Foster, who is Windsor Regional Hospital’s vice-president of mental health. “Number one, we all need to continue collectively to talk about and pay attention to the mental health of everybody in our communities, and our families and our friends.

“And two, we need to really make sure people know how and where to access appropriate health earlier rather than waiting for things to escalate to a point of a crisis or an emergency.”

Uncertainty about what the future holds “can be a major source of stress as well,” Foster said. “Supports have to be responsive to that. And as a system, we have to have enough capacity to make sure that we can provide appropriate levels of care at every level of severity.”

One of those resources is the 24-hour Crisis Telephone Line, 519-973-4435, for those who require immediate assessment, psychosocial intervention, and support. Walk-in services are available for those aged 16 and older at the Crisis and Mental Wellness Centre (736-744 Ouellette Ave.) from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.

As for Phil and Nicole Janisse, they’re raising money for two benches to be placed in the Riverside area. One will be a memorial bench in Matt’s name, and the other a “buddy bench,” a place where individuals experiencing difficulties can sit, silently identifying themselves in need of someone to talk to.

Matt was “picked on” as a child attending St. Rose Catholic Elementary School, which was “hard on him,” Nicole Janisse said. The benches will be “for other kids that may be experiencing something like that” and provide them a place to sit and talk.

So far, more than $3,400 has been raised for the benches, which will cost around $5,200 in total. Around $1,500 in donations were received from Matt’s family, friends and colleagues at a memorial road hockey game held in his name earlier this year, and more than $1,900 had been raised as of Aug. 23 through an online GoFundMe campaign entitled, “Matthew Janisse Memorial & Buddy Benches.”

“This can happen to the best of families and anybody,” Phil Janisse said. “I’d love for as many people as possible to pay more attention to mental health and suicide awareness, and be able to sit and listen.”