Honouring free spirit who battled depression

When a popular vlogger took her own life after battling depression, her family launched a fundraiser to support research and programs on preventing suicide.

Lee on Boat

Lee MacMillan had garnered a global following as she toured the world in a van, video blogging her travels. Whether it was dancing in the streets of Marrakesh, hiking the Patagonian glaciers, taking up golf or cycling along the Californian coastline, the 28-year-old influencer from Barrie was always up for a new adventure.

In fall 2020, she moved to Santa Barbara: a new home, a new job, a new love in her life. Despite the pandemic, things seemed good. In fact, she had just purchased a van – her very own, for the first time – and was excited about outfitting it for the next tour. On March 26, 2021, she left her home, leaving behind her phone, wallet, car, keys – and took her own life.

“She was the last person you’d think would ever do that,” says her sister, Sasha. “She was a magnetic force of nature. A connector. The kindest and most fun person you’d ever meet.”

Sasha recalls traveling with Lee across Australia – a trip that first sparked Lee’s passion for van life. “We’d walk into a pub in Melbourne, and by the end of the evening, she knew everyone and we’d have invitations to go sailing or hiking. Everyone loved her. Every day with her was a new adventure.”

But Lee was also struggling with depression, which she spoke candidly about on her YouTube channel. She wanted to reduce the stigma of mental illness.

“Depression is like cancer,” says Sasha. “No one chooses to get cancer. No one chooses to be depressed. It can happen to anyone, yet is treated differently.”

Lee wasn’t alone in her struggle. She had tons of support – family, friends, a therapist. Yet, still she succumbed.

That’s what Sasha wants people to know. Suicide is not rare. It cuts across age and background. In Canada, 11 people die by suicide each day – that’s more than twice as many as those killed in car accidents. And for every person lost to suicide, many more think about it or attempt it. As tragically, those who die by suicide leave behind at least seven to 10 survivors – parents, kids, friends – whose lives are changed forever.

“It’s important to talk about it. Depression and suicidal ideation – it’s such a nuanced illness. Some people don’t know what to say to us, and avoid talking about Lee. But just as Lee was more than that one social post, she was more than her death,” says Sasha.

“And for those who are contemplating suicide, it’s important to talk to someone. We as a society need to get better at breaking the stigma, and making it easier for people thinking about suicide to get the help they need immediately.” (Note: The CRTC has now announced a 988 suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline to go live in 2023.)

Now the MacMillan family is taking up Lee’s mental health advocacy efforts. They launched a fundraiser for suicide awareness and prevention, and donated the funds to five organizations, including St. Michael’s Hospital’s Centre for Depression and Suicide Studies. Sasha says a friend who was in medical school suggested St. Michael’s.

A big reason is that it’s home to clinician-scientists, like Dr. Sidney Kennedy, the Arthur Sommer Rotenberg Chair in Depression and Suicide Studies, and Dr. Sakina Rizvi, who are researching the biological and psychosocial basis of depression. They want to identify new treatments to prevent people from acting on their suicidal thoughts. Some of the funds raised will also be used to develop a Family & Friends of Individuals at Risk of Suicide Training (FIRST) Program, a first-of-its-kind suicide prevention program tailored to the needs of friends and families of individuals experiencing suicide-related thoughts and behaviours.

“My family is coping with our loss by supporting science that’s focused on the causes of depression and how to intervene early,” says Sasha. “For me personally, I want to honour Lee by living my life to the fullest for her. I know she’s always with me in spirit.”

To learn more about Lee, and donate to the Lee MacMillan Fund for The Centre for Depression and Suicide Studies at St. Michael’s Hospital, click here.

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call 911 or Telehealth Ontario at 1-866-797-0000.

Donate to St. Michael's Foundation.

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