Giving back: Project UpstreamPublished on October 18, 2010

  • Sylvia Cuhaci. (Photography by Mark Holleron)

Every parent's worst fear is to lose a child. For Sylvia Cuhaci, that fear became a reality when her middle son Hayq died at the age of 29 after a scarring struggle with mental illness.

Hayq's death was not easy. He was experiencing a psychotic episode at the time he died, and police had been called to his apartment. Both sides overreacted out of fear for their safety, and Hayq died in the ensuing chaos. 

"He was asphyxiated fighting for his life in the arms of those he thought would help him," says his mother.

An inquest was held with the jury recommending the education of police officers about mental illness, and arguing for the revision of police protocol when dealing with mentally ill citizens. But astonishingly, the devastated Cuhaci family did not assign blame. Instead, they chose to support education and outreach so that similar deaths could be prevented in the future.

To that end, and in an effort to make sense of her incredible loss, Sylvia Cuhaci turned to Project Upstream, a small, hands-on organization in Ottawa for the mentally ill that offers community support services and creatively addresses the personal health needs of its clients.

"Project Upstream focuses on the family - it tries to normalize life and meet emerging needs," says Cuhaci.  "And we have just launched a ‘Youth Matters' campaign to help young people with mental illness reclaim their lives as they transfer from youth to adult services," she adds about a project that is particularly dear to her heart.

"When Hayq was diagnosed with schizophrenia we were very relieved because we thought ‘well, now we'll have an answer or cure' but that was not meant to be," she notes quietly. "Instead, we began a seven-year journey into mental illness where sometimes our family didn't know how to help Hayq or each other," she continues. "Sometimes, as we went through crises, the only way we could cope was not to speak to each other."

Now, Sylvia Cuhaci has made it her mission to help provide hope to others who are walking the path she was forced to take alongside her strong, bright, hockey-playing son as his life was shattered by mental illness.

 "If you can help a young person before they fall through the cracks, or before they see themselves as incurable, you will make a difference," she concludes. And already, due to her quiet, dignified commitment to the issue, other families facing a similar diagnosis have found their own path a little brighter and a lot more hopeful.

To attend a Gala on November 18 in support of the Youth Matters Campaign featuring guest speaker The Hon. Michael Wilson, visit or call 613-248-3329.

Catherine Clark is the host of Beyond Politics on CPAC. 

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