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Washtenaw United: Personal tragedy inspires "Stop the Stigma" campaign when it comes to mental illness

Collyer Smith
Ann Arbor Rotary Club
Collyer Smith

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'


Collyer is a member of Rotary- an international service organization that supports, and serves, our communities. He will be the District Governor for 2023-2024, serving 47 Clubs in SE Michigan and SW Ontario- with over 1400 members. He was the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor’s President for 2016-2017. The Rotary Club of Ann Arbor is one of the largest Rotary Clubs in the world with around 250 members.

He is also on the Board Chair of the Family Learning Center (helping second through 5th graders get to grade level reading) and leads the Rotary District’s Mental Health Initiative. His District 6380 Mental Health Newsletter: Stop the Stigma, has been a huge resource for members both in District 6380, and outside the District- both Rotarians, and non-Rotarians, alike.

Collyer has presented his talk to Rotary Clubs, Toastmaster’s Clubs, Stephens Ministry, and Nurses Anesthetist Conferences in Grand Rapids.

His wife Annie is a former Montessori teacher, and a Committee Chair for the Thrift Shop in Ann Arbor. Annie and Collyer have been married for 35 years.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to this week's edition of Washtenaw United. For all the progress that's been made in the area of mental health, it remains an underserved part of the health care system in America. And, additionally, there's a great deal of societal stigma still attached to mental health issues. I'm David Fair, and May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and that's what we're going to discuss today. Our Washtenaw United guest is Collyer Smith and he is board chair of the Family Learning Center in Ann Arbor. He's also a member of the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor, past president, and will be Rotary district governor for the 2023-2024 years. And he also serves as its mental health chair. Nationally, more than 40 million adults and one in five children are dealing with some form of mental health disorder. Given your work in the area of mental health, does that sound about right to you?

Collyer Smith: Well, it certainly does. I know when I talk about what I had gone through with our son. And what I found is that when I ask if someone knows anyone that is struggling with mental health with the rotary groups, people kind of look around and hesitate to raise their hand. But if I talk to the college group and the high school group and I ask the same question, then I'll look around. Their hands immediately go up. So, it's really prevalent, particularly what we see with younger people.

David Fair: You brought up your son, and I'm glad you did because I hesitate to do so. But mental health and the worst possible outcome is a part of the history of your immediate family. Please tell me about him.

Collyer Smith: Well, when I think of Cam, I reviewed some feedback that I got from his two best friends and some of his friends that he met while in therapy out west in a session there with therapists and a group of kids. I call them kids, but they're young adults. And one of the things that came out was that his two best friends came over after his death, and we started talking. And I really didn't get to know them as well. They were friends since grade school, and I knew them, and I knew their parents. But they just opened up, and they both said, "You have to understand. Cam is probably the funniest person we have ever met." And when I look at some of the comments from the therapy sessions that he went through out west, it was the same feedback. It's that Cam was just one of the funniest people they've ever met. And so, he had that going. And I can remember at dinner tables, we would have conversations, and I would open up with Cam. I wouldn't say, "Cam, how was your day?" Because that just was pretty lame. I just said, "Cam, anything funny happened today?" And he would just open up, and we would be laughing hysterically at the dinner table. And when we caught our breath, I would just say, "Cam, where do you even come up with this stuff?" And I still don't know. And he was a great kid. He helped me with the Family Learning Institute. We would tutor twice a week over there, and he was great with the kids. And I would learn from him how he connected, because he really did connect with the younger kids to help them get to reading.

David Fair: His passing was an overdose, right?

Collyer Smith: Yeah. See, he was in therapy and was clean for about seven, eight months. He wanted to come home for Christmas, which that was kiboshed by the therapist. It is the worst time to come home because of all the stress and anxiety, and people relapse immediately. So, we decided to have him come home first. I guess it was the second week in January. And within two days, he overdosed, and he died.

David Fair: There remains a stigma attached to drug and/or alcohol addiction, and more often than not, that's a symptom of a mental health issue before it becomes a problem in and of itself. As you were trying to help Cam through his troubles, what barriers did you run into?

Collyer Smith: I'm not sure when we finally figured out that he had depression and anxiety. Certainly, in eighth grade, it came up pretty strong. And some issues that we're having like getting out of bed and just some things that went beyond adolescent behavior. And, throughout high school, he was getting the help and support. We thought that was obviously needed. But the thing about living with an alcoholic and an addict, there is an underlying issue, which, with Cam, was depression and anxiety. They tend to self-medicate. And that is a real frustration, because then that becomes an addiction. And if anyone has ever lived or know of someone who's lived with an alcoholic or an addict, it's depressing. It's draining both mentally and physically. The disease just absolutely breaks trust and destroys families. And when we went to parents' therapy sessions, you can just see families unravel.

David Fair: We're talking mental health and getting rid of stigma attached to dealing with such issues with Collyer Smith on WEMU's Washtenaw United. Did you find that as you started through that process with Cam, that even perhaps within the family, there was some intellectual stigma attached to addiction and mental health issues?

Collyer Smith: Oh, very much so. In fact, the stigma was so strong, and I felt that at Cam's memorial service, I didn't even want to look up, because I just thought the only people that would show up was my immediate family because of the stigma of being a terrible parent. They don't know or understand how to be a parent. It just permeated. And I thought, "This is just not fair to Cam." Outside of the addiction, he was just wonderful. We had a reception afterwards down below the basement area of the church, and I realized how wrong I was. All these people came down. And I just realized that the support of our friends in the church and organizations that we caught up with. That's what you need to cope and get over this.

David Fair: I can certainly imagine nothing worse than the loss of a child. And you mentioned the importance of having that help and support available to you. Why is it that we as individuals, as families, and as members of communities find it so difficult to ask for that help?

Collyer Smith: It's one of those things growing up that, "Hey, you can figure it out." You don't ask for help. You just figure it out. And that is so wrong, particularly in a situation like this. And I learned that. And I guess it took me to go through it. But that support is so important. I can't express the overwhelmingly surprise and just thankfulness with the grace of all the people that have helped us.

David Fair: You have addressed the fact that mental health issues and subsequent addictions can break families. How did you and your wife turn the corner enough to make the decision to invest yourselves in helping get rid of the stigma attached to these issues?

Collyer Smith: Well, there's two main reasons. The first thing is we never blamed ourselves. And that's one of the things that we saw in therapy is that the ugliness of families and the parents just blaming the other person. We never did that. We were hard on ourselves, and we told us "Hey! Stop! We got to move forward on this. We can't just blame ourselves." But we never, ever blamed each other--one blaming the other. And then the second thing is that I get involved with Rotary with this mental health initiative and stopping the stigma. And so, I started working with people that, you know, I thought Rotary was one happy family, and they give back to the community, both volunteering and financially. And then, I find that their regular people that have regular issues, and one of it was mental health. The past district governor was real big into Canada Ride Don't Hide, which is a bicycle program June 1st through the 30th. It's the largest mental health bike ride in Canada. Then I met someone who lived in Livingston County. She has the Amber Rennick house and the golf outing on Saturday, June 4th. It's a woman's facility because there was no women's facility for substance use disorder. Then I met a group in Milan Rotary called Hot Rods Motorcycle Safety and Suicide Prevention. I have a sweater and slacks, and they come in with leather jackets and T-shirts, but they were wonderful. And they, at a very early age in high school, go to these high schools, talk about motorcycle safety and what you need to do, but also suicide prevention, because they had seen a lot in high school, particularly in Milan. There had been some issues there. And then, in Ann Arbor, we had the Ann Arbor Marathon that is solely dedicated to mental health. So, all these things were coming up in Rotary that I had no idea until I started getting involved. And again, it just covered a lot of the support that I certainly needed, and we just helped each other.

David Fair: On a societal level, education. You think it's primary in getting to a place where we see an end to stigma?

Collyer Smith: Well, absolutely. And it's just sharing our stories, because I was really reluctant to share my story regarding Cam and what we went through. But I realized that when I heard other people share their stories, what an impact it made to the group. And when I started sharing my story, I realized other people were coming up to me, "Hey, I'm so glad you shared this story. My son or my daughter is going through the same thing." And one woman came up. She said, "I'm so glad you're doing this. Because of the pandemic, I mean, I've got three kids on Zoom all the time, and my husband works, and I'm working. This is a great opportunity for our kids to understand what's important." I thought, "Well, that's pretty cool." And then the next mom I met, she said, "I'm so glad you're doing this. We just lost our son."

David Fair: These are hard stories to hear, but perhaps necessary in finding the path forward to healing. There are going to be many who are listening today who will spend some time reflecting on how all of this may play into their families and their lives. There's likely going to be more questions than answers. So, where do they turn?

Collyer Smith: Well, that's a real good question. As I said before, the support that I received from the church, with my friends, as well as the support groups, that it's really reaching out and making sure that you find the people that are really helping you get through and coping through this.

David Fair: And the message to those who might pass judgment and perpetuate stigma, your message to them.

Collyer Smith: You have no idea what we go through. The grief of losing a child doesn't stop after a year.

David Fair: Collyer, I thank you for sharing your story. It's going to do a world of good, even as you sit in your pain. I thank you for the time. I thank you for sharing. And I thank you for the messaging.

Collyer Smith: Thank you, David.

David Fair: That is Collyer Smith, board chair of the Family Learning Center in Ann Arbor, member of the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor, a past president. And he'll serve as Rotary district governor for the 2023-2024 years, where he already is mental health chair. He's been our guest on Washtenaw United. I'm David Fair, and Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County. It comes your way every Monday only on 89 one WEMU FM and HD one Ypsilanti.



The Family Learning Institute

Ann Arbor Rotary Club


More than forty million adults and one in five children in the United States suffer from a mental health disorder. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting economic recession, continue to negatively affect many people’s mental health and create new barriers for people already suffering from mental illness and substance use disorders. In a KFF Tracking Poll conducted in mid-July 2020, 53 percent of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus. This is significantly higher than the 32 percent reported in March of 2020. Nationwide, the most pressing need facing communities is the lack of providers and resources to address the continuing mental health and substance use disorder needs. UWWC fights for the health, education and financial stability of Washtenaw County people and views mental health as a core factor impacting the ability of people, and our community, to reach their full potential.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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