Mental Health System ‘Fails’ Young Advocate Trying to Make It Better: Family

By Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative ReporterLondon Free Press Wed., March 16, 2022

Kristin Legault-Donkers, who pushed tirelessly to help others with mental health issues, is being remembered as a fighter who struggled with mental illness herself.

The St. Thomas woman died last Friday, choosing, as her obituary said, “to end her life after a courageous and publicly hard-fought battle with her mental illness.”

She was 25.

“She wanted to make a difference, which is what she did,” Joanne Donkers, her grandmother with whom she’d lived since she was 10, said Wednesday.

“She wanted to make a change in the mental health system. That was her goal,” Donkers said.

A graduate student in social work, Legault-Donkers was a longtime advocate for change in the mental health care system, taking any opportunity – writing books, mentoring, researching and blogging – to raise awareness about mental health and the challenges that come for those trying to access the help they need.

In her own words, she “was exhausted from not getting sustained relief,” her obituary said.

“After years of battling her own demons along with the bureaucracy of our mental health care system, the system that she so passionately fought for failed her.”

Known to her grandparents as their “baby girl,” Legault-Donkers’ family said they want people to know her story, to continue her work to help improve public understanding of mental illness.

A family friend, Antonette Lane, who’d known Legault-Donkers since she moved in with her grandparents, echoed that sentiment.

“She’s written many times and she has had many interviews,” Lane said. “It was very, very difficult for her to access a program, even through the psychiatrists that she was working with and all the social workers.”

Legault-Donkers had battled severe depression and bipolar disorder, her fight against the former beginning around age 10 shortly after her mother died, her grandmother said.

Three years later, she tried to take her own life, and had struggled with mental illness ever since. On and off, she was admitted to hospital.

In the darkest of times, it was school and learning that kept her going, Donkers said.

“Going to school and learning was her favourite. It kept her alive,” she said.

At 18, Legault-Donkers wrote and published four children’s books to help young people dealing with depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder. She used $15,000 of her own money, left from her mother, to publish the books that later entered London elementary schools and earned her a national award.

“I used some of the money to publish these books. My mom struggled with bipolar disorder, so they’re dedicated to her,” she told The St. Thomas Times-Journal in 2016.

It was after high school that she began “to realize there was no help at all and she wanted to make a difference,” Donkers said.

Widely recognized for her work in the London area, Legault-Donkers helped create an educational package to get school-aged children talking about mental health.

The 25-year-old was working toward her master’s degree in social work at the University of Windsor and recently had earned a degree in psychology and disability studies from King’s University College in London.

Determined to make lasting, systemic change, Legault-Donkers had plans to become a lawyer and pursue a career in public policy, mental health and disability rights law and advocacy.

“In general, people don’t understand mental health and that really bothered her,” Lane said.

“She tried so hard to get people to understand the struggles that are constant when you have mental (illness). That’s why she kept fighting for it. That’s why she decided to be a lawyer.”

Legault-Donkers is survived by her father, grandparents and brothers.

Charlie, her cat, was her best friend, her grandmother said.

“She adored her cat and her cat adored her,” she said.

Asked how she made others around her feel, Donkers paused.

“She had a beautiful smile,” she said. “She was a lovely girl, so compassionate. She told us many times a day how much she loved us.”

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