New Trumbull foundation My Friend Abby aims to inspire a mental health revolution

Losing a family member to suicide is a devastating experience, but also one that can inspire someone to action, said Trumbull resident Gillian Anderson. Now, five years after her daughter Abby died by suicide, Anderson is ready to make a difference.

“After Abby died, I saw this huge need for suicide prevention and mental health and support,” Anderson said. “I just wanted to do something.”

Anderson spent years working with a suicide prevention foundation, but a few months ago she began seriously considering starting one of her own. Since January her foundation, My Friend Abby Inc. has hosted two events, recruited a board of directors, and secured an association with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. The foundation has also submitted the required documentation to register as a 501(c)(3) and Anderson said she expects final approval soon.

“It’s really taken off,” she said. The Facebook page Team Abby has nearly 1,500 followers, and the organization is currently planning its inaugural fundraiser, an Oct. 19 event at Joey C’s in Stratford. Details of the event are on the group’s Facebook page.

Anderson’s vision for her new foundation is to engage young people in helping each other. By distributing small grants, she said it can allow students and teachers to initiate peer-to-peer programs and events that fit with the foundation’s motto of “Inspiring a Mental Health Revolution...One Friend at a Time.” Though Anderson is a Trumbull resident, her plan is to help support students around the state with funding their ideas.

“It’s really going to be up to the kids,” she said. “And the idea is that it’s for students, not necessarily for schools. The thing we do know is that if someone is struggling, they are most likely to turn first to a peer.”

As a test of her concept, Anderson said the foundation already has hosted two events such as those a student or teacher might try to organize. The first, a mental health boat trip to the Sheffield Island lighthouse, drew 50 students for an afternoon of fun combined with serious discussion.

“We had a therapist come with us, and the kids sat and talked, then got off the boat and painted a picture of the lighthouse [artwork has been shown to help anxiety and depression],” Anderson said. “On the ride back, we handed out pens and paper, and asked them to reflect on what they had talked about, and write down their thoughts.”

The gravity of the discussions was evidently not lost on those in attendance, she said.

“You never heard teenagers get so quiet so fast as they were all writing,” Anderson said.

The second event consisted of a night out at the Westport Country Playhouse for an evening of Irving Berlin music. While big band standards might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about a night out with teens, Anderson noted that music has been proven to have an effect on mood.

“We sat in a circle and talked, then we went in and saw the show,” she said.

Those two events are typical of how the foundation could function. They are relatively easy for a young person to arrange, and inexpensive enough to be funded with a grant from a small nonprofit agency.

“Kids have so many creative ideas, and they have been bringing them to me already,” she said.

Many of the ideas revolve around the idea of removing the stigmas of both suicide and mental illness.

“If you break your arm, people can see it,” she said. “The stigma with mental illness is that you can’t see it. Look at Robin Williams, or Kate Spade, or Anthony Bourdain. They looked happy and successful. Their struggles were invisible.”

Abby’s own life had similar details that made her death all the more shocking. A varsity cheerleader with social media pages full of photos where she was smiling and surrounded by friends, she had written out an aspirational list of things she wanted to achieve in life less than 24 hours before she died.

Thankfully, Anderson said, the younger generation is more engaged in mental health than their predecessors.

“They are the ones that are going to take action and make a difference,” she said.