Courtesy Trevor Johnson
May 19, 2022
Beloved Calgarian’s death inspires investment in mental health research
We all have that friend. The one who’s down for anything and always has your back. The one whose enthusiasm is utterly contagious. The one who inspires you to be a better person.
For Trevor Johnson, one of the driving forces behind the Mental Health Initiative for Stress and Trauma (MIST) at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI), that friend was Michael McClay. A loving husband and father, amputee hockey legend and outdoor enthusiast, McClay was known to be positive, outgoing and kind.
What friends and family didn’t know was that he was also suffering from depression — so deeply that, last fall, just months before his 50th birthday, McClay took his own life.
“It was a total shock. Not just that Mike was gone, but that it was suicide,” says Johnson, BA’96, who was due to have dinner with his best friend of 30-plus years that very evening. “The next day, we were going through every moment leading up to it, trying to find anything that was out of the ordinary, but we were at a complete loss.”
Johnson wasn’t alone. Those who knew McClay struggled to understand how things could have been so dire without their knowing — as well as how to channel their grief into honouring his tremendous impact on their lives.
Johnson received a call from Dr. Eric Hyndman, PhD’01, MD’04, a urologist and family friend who had experience in fundraising for research. Hyndman pitched the idea of partnering with HBI to support mental health research.
At the celebration of life, Johnson shared the idea in his eulogy and, within days, Hyndman had connected him with HBI. “Eric was instrumental in setting things in motion,” says Johnson. “From there, we formed a small committee to figure out what we were going to do and how we were going to do it.”
Understanding stress and brain trauma
Dr. Jaideep Bains, PhD, whose work investigates how the brain responds to, remembers, transmits and adapts to stress, was soon identified as the ideal person to lead MIST on the research side.
“With MIST, we can invest in research to understand the underpinnings of not only stress, but also how brain trauma leads to long-term consequences for mental health,” says Bains, who is the director of research at HBI. “As one example, we have outstanding concussion researchers, but we are just starting to build the relationships that will allow us to understand the links between brain trauma and mental health.”
Having suffered a concussion two years ago, both stress and brain trauma could have contributed to McClay’s depression. He was also part of a demographic in which mental health is particularly stigmatized.
Trudie Lee, for the Cumming School of Medicine
“One of the challenges with men is that mental health issues are under-reported. There’s still this idea that you need to tough it out,” says Bains, who also cites public education — about stress, brain trauma and emotional health — as being just as important as the research. It’s another component of MIST and part of McClay’s legacy.
“Mike’s friends and family want to prevent others from going through a similar tragedy,” says Bains. “It’s been really meaningful to collaborate with the committee. As a scientist, my tendency is to work in my lab and try to figure things out and so this has really opened up another world to me.”
A record-breaking Giving Day
Changing perceptions about mental health and advancing research is a tall order, but Johnson was encouraged when a friend immediately committed $150,000 to MIST. “I realized that, no matter what, this money will do good, so there is zero chance of failure,” he says.
Considering the breadth of McClay’s network — and the ubiquity of mental illness — suddenly their audacious $10 million goal seemed attainable. And with UCalgary Giving Day 2022 approaching, it was the perfect opportunity to widely promote the MIST fund.
Like MIST, community is at the heart of the university’s annual fundraiser to raise money for programs, services and scholarships. This year’s event also offered the chance for donors to double their impact, with donations matched by UCalgary up to $2,500 per gift.
Giving Day 2022 happened to fall on Johnson’s birthday, April 21, which he spent texting and calling for donations and trying to bump MIST up the Giving Day leaderboard.
“We’ve got $50 here, $500 there. My 93-year-old grandmother even gave $2,500,” recalls Johnson. “I was in tears.”
In the end, MIST took the top spot, with 153 people donating almost $175,000 — brought up to nearly $300,000 with the gift-match. The achievement was fitting for the record-breaking Giving Day that saw more than 2,100 donors give $2.42 million to create lasting, positive change.
The results came as no surprise to Shahr Savizi, MBA’21, director of development with the Cumming School of Medicine. “Trevor and the committee are an amazing group of engaged entrepreneurs, and this was the perfect time to get MIST out there,” says Savizi.
“There’s a collectiveness to Giving Day that empowers people. You’re not talking about a drop in the bucket — it’s filling up the bucket with multiple drops.”
Creating change through innovation and collaboration
Giving Day also helped MIST reach an important milestone: $1 million raised. It was one of many pleasant surprises for Johnson since he started working with UCalgary — like learning how well-poised his alma mater was to take on this challenge.
“I was impressed with just how damn good UCalgary is doing on the global stage, how much they’re punching above their weight class as a young, innovative university,” he says.
Courtesy Trevor Johnson
That ambitious, can-do approach is appropriate for honouring a man remembered for that same spirit — bringing to Johnson’s mind a memory from their younger days at the hot springs in Radium, B.C.
“Mike has his prosthetic leg off at the pool, hopping around, and there were all these kids following him because they’re in awe of him and his energy,” Johnson laughs. “He’d go off the diving board with one leg, doing some move with his big, curly hair flying, and I thought, ‘I’m one of those kids. I want to be around that dude because he just makes you feel so good.’”
That McClay wasn’t aware of how many people loved him further underscores the tragedy, adds Johnson. “That’s why we’re doing MIST — to make sure guys like Mike aren’t gone too soon.”
Creating change in the mental health arena is a bold undertaking, but not an impossible one. “You don’t need to be a millionaire to make a difference,” says Johnson. “We want MIST to be a big, open tent, where everyone is welcome, because that’s who Mike was.”
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, you are not alone. If your life or someone else’s is in danger, call 911 for emergency services or call the Calgary Distress Center at 403-266-4357 or Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566.
The University of Calgary is committed to enhancing the mental health of students, faculty and staff and provides a variety of mental health resources. Learn more about our Campus Mental Health Strategy and Suicide Awareness and Prevention Framework.