Todd Simko's Widow Opens Dialogue About Depression, Mental Illness, Suicide

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Minna Simko knew little about mental illness when her husband, Vancouver musician and producer Todd Simko, best know for his tenure in the pop band Pure, committed suicide last year. He was just 45. The young woman with an eight-year-old daughter took time to grieve and take in this enormous tragedy that blindsided her and changed her life forever.  It hasn’t been easy but she started asking questions and soaking up as much information as she could about depression and mental illness.

“I knew very little to be honest,” Minna tells Samaritanmag. “I knew people get depressed. Todd’s dad had depression and was on medication for it. So I knew his mood swings, but not to the point of you want to hurt yourself.  When Todd’s dad was on medication, he’d be fine so I had that [reference] and I knew that Todd had anxiety about certain things but we all do — but I didn’t know much.

“I’m learning more as I go. As I talk to doctors and counselors, I’m learning a lot and I want to be open if anyone has questions, ‘Okay, call me. I’m an open door, if you’re concerned about someone else.’ ‘How was Todd acting?’  — things like that. I’m willing to share those because if I can stop someone else, that’s the main thing.”

Canadian Family Physician (Feb. 2011, vol. 57 no. 2) cites some interesting facts about men and depression from the official journal of The College of Family Physicals of Canada:

“Depression is routinely positioned as a woman’s disease 1) in part because of the recognition of a lower incidence of depression among men compared with women. 2) However, the lower incidence among men might be a by-product of men’s tendencies to deny illness, self-monitor and self-treat symptoms, and avoid professional health care providers and services as a means to enact and preserve their masculinity 3) This has contributed to a poor understanding of depression in men, including how to identify it and how to treat it…”

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed.) states the signs and symptoms of depression [for both sexes] include persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood; feelings of hopelessness and pessimism; feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness; and loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed.

Minna was told by her counselor that men in particular have a tough time asking for help. “They often feel like they are failing their family,” she relays.

As she struggled through that first year without him, many people in his life approached her, wanting to do some kind of tribute or benefit.  Todd had spent his entire adult life in the music business and part of a tight-knit music community.  He played guitar in Pure, which he co-founded in 1991. The band was signed to Reprise/Warner and later Mammoth. Their first album, 1992’s Purefunalia, was produced by Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison. After a handful of album and EP releases, the band called It quits in 2000, leaving a string of hit singles such as “Denial,” “Lemonade” and “Anna Is A Speed Freak.”

Todd had started producing, engineering and mixing some of Pure’s tracks and produced an album for Starkicker in 1998 so when Pure was over, he transitioned into a career behind the board. He mastered albums for Lily Frost, Vancouver Nights, Tom Landa & The Paperboys, New Town Animals, The Be Good Tanyas, Kelly Brock, Young and Sexy, and many more. In 2003, he worked on instrumentation and engineering for Marcy Playground and produced The Organ in 2004.

He also worked closely with Australia’s Xavier Rudd, engineering, producing and playing various instruments on his 2004 Solace album and again on 1995’s Food In The Belly and live album, Good Spirit.  One of his last projects was producing, engineering and mixing The Salteens and engineering and producing tracks for American children’s TV show Yo Gabba Gabba!

“I think Todd made a big impact on the music community, bigger than he expected,” Minna realized when 300 people showed up to his memorial at Vancouver’s St. James Hall, “his favourite hall for music,” says Minna. But she couldn’t wrap her head around putting on something bigger, not just yet.

“I was just dealing with understanding the whole thing and grieving, and I said, ‘Let me get past this.’ We’ll just take some time and figure it out. [His suicide] caught me completely by surprise. I didn’t understand it. You know what? People get depressed. I mean, we all get to a point where we sometimes get depressed, things don’t go right and you’re just like, ‘Arrrr,’ and you’re going to get through it, but there’s more to it as it continues and you don’t see the signs.

“After Todd’s dad passed away, that’s when it went downhill and he knew something was wrong,” she continues.  “He was like, ‘Oh, something’s not right in my head.’ He had to get an MRI done. Medically they looked, but I wish he would maybe have got a second opinion  — maybe it's not physical; maybe it’s more ‘I’m having a hard time.’ I offered suggestions of help — maybe counseling — and other people tried to help him.

“I don’t know, maybe he felt that if he went and got help… I want people to know that there’s nothing to be ashamed about. We all go through something and maybe we can find someone to talk about it more and get rid of stigmatism and make people feel comfortable to go tell someone and get the help they need.”

Minna didn’t initially know where to turn after that horrible day in April 2012 when Todd went missing from their home in New Westminster, BC, and it was later determined he had jumped into the nearby Fraser River. She sought help from her doctor and Todd’s. The police also put her in touch with a counseling service for both herself and their daughter, Emily.

She had to drive to Vancouver, 20 minutes away, for counseling. While the commute was “no big deal” for her, she felt it might be a big deal for those who don’t have a car or are elderly.

“I thought, wow, that’s a bit of a trek to go get help. Every community locally should have the funding or the resources for people to get help if they need to.”

STORY CONTINUES AFTER TRIBUTE VIDEO:

 

 

By January, Minna was ready to put on a tribute for Todd and to raise money for her local branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

Founded in 1918, CMHA provides direct service to more than 100,000 Canadians through the combined efforts of more than 10,000 volunteers and staff across the country in over 120 communities, if states on its web site. The local branches "provide a wide range of innovative services and supports to people who are experiencing mental illness and their families. These services are tailored to the needs and resources of the communities where they are based. One of the core goals of these services is to help people with mental illness develop the personal tools to lead meaningful and productive lives."

“I picked mental health because I just feel here in BC, after talking to a couple of psyche nurses, it’s just seems to all be about money and where the hospitals can get funding," Minna explains. "So if I can put more money into mental health in my community to offer more resources to help others, that’s how I made my decision. Todd loved the community and I just feel like it could use a little more resources and be a little more out-there.”

In no time, the music community came to her assistance. Industry veteran Frank Weipert was her mentor, letting her know what was needed to organize an event, and Jonathan Simkin offered some of the acts on his management roster to perform. “It started off being a one night event and because I had so much interest, it ended up being a two night event,” says Minna. Musician Bob Kemmis was the volunteer stage manager and the MC was Steven Hamm. 

Held in May at The Columbia in New Westminster, the weekend event — presented by Hearing Protection Required, the name of Todd’s record studio, and titled Change of Frequency — featured 8 acts per night, mostly comprised of people who had either worked with Todd or knew him. Among the line-up was Pure and its frontman Jordy Birch’s new group, Guilty About Girls, and Scott Acomba who was in After All with Todd and Birch, pre Pure.

“Mental health now affects 1 out of 5 people and with what has happened to my family in the last year, I could not stay silent,” Minna wrote in a message on the event’s promotion page. “I do not want people to suffer the way Todd, our family and friends have. It is time to get rid of the stigma that surrounds mental health. If we as people become more open to mental health, treat it as any other disease (which it is), maybe those suffering are more likely to reach out and open up as well. It is time to stop being silent about this.”

“The benefit,” Minna tells Samaritanmag, “tied in to the one-year anniversary or close to after Todd passed away. And second, Todd was really promoting music; he loved the whole music scene and he was involved all his life and wanted to get something in the community going as well and just support the bands. So it was like a final wish for him that he never got a chance to do.”

After expenses — venue costs, drink tickets, event insurance and advertising — Change of Frequency raised $2300. Her goal was $2000.

“It was a fantastic success. The CMHA were so grateful for the contribution and for the work that was involved that they asked me if I wanted to volunteer for any future events here with the CMHA, which I will,” Minna says.

She’s not sure if any other money trickled in from across the country, since she asked his fans, friends and colleagues to donate directly to the CMHA or their local mental health organization. There is also a trust set up for Emily’s education that people may contribute to, as a result of inquiries.

Next year, Minna will likely throw another event in honour of her husband, but the rest of the year her door is open and she will continue to learn as much as she can about depression and what leads to suicide.

“If we can help people across the county — because it just seems like a lot of artists, talented good people — are leaving too early and it just seems like it’s affecting more people. Not only talented [musicians], but you hear of all the kids on the news that have been bullied and commit suicide. Something’s gotta be stopped or talked about or more things have got to be done.

“With cancer, everybody will talk about it; there’s so much funding for it and mental health is like any other disease. It affects 1 in 5 people. It’s time to not have that stigma. It’s okay to talk about it and maybe it will bring other people who are scared to talk about it out in the open.

“When this happened to Todd, I had so many people come up to me and go, ‘I know somebody…,’ so I feel open communication maybe will help somebody. Hopefully.  Now we’re seeing more initiatives on mental health but for some people it’s too late. I have a daughter and I want her to realize you don’t have to feel embarrassed to talk about it. I want to show by example; it’s a disease like anything else. Learn the signs. Maybe it will help somebody come and talk to us or help someone else or get the help they need.”

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