Robb Nash knows about death.
When he was 17, the Kleefeld, Manitoba native was blazing down the highway in a car with his friends in icy weather when they were involved in a head-on collision with a semi.
Declared dead at the scene but revived in the ambulance, Nash said he underwent major surgery and spent years grappling with depression.
Now a rock star and motivational speaker, Nash tours Canadian schools speaking to students about suicide and mental health. Nash was one of the keynote speakers at the first annual Healthy Me conference at St. Albert Catholic High Wednesday.
In a fiery, frenetic talk punctuated by rock songs, video testimonials and humour, Nash told 900-some students about how he had seen hundreds of students turn away from depression and suicide to achieve greatness.
“I don’t think bad things happen for a reason, but I do think they have potential,” he said.
“It’s not about what you go through, it’s what you do with it.”
From pain, strength
Nash said he woke up from the accident not knowing who he was or recognizing his parents. Once a promising young athlete, he now couldn’t even bath himself.
“I was suicidal, I didn’t want to be alive.”
It was a friend who helped him realize that just as he chose to get in that car, he could also choose to do something with his experience.
“I remember I screamed at the sky, ‘I want to do something today, I want to do something that matters!'” he said.
What he decided to do was to call the driver of the semi that hit him to tell him that he had survived. The big, burly man broke down in tears, saying that he felt so guilty about it that he hadn’t driven a vehicle since. The call came as a huge relief for the man, Nash said.
Inspired, Nash started a band to influence other youths by singing about his experience, later scrapping a record deal to speak to youths full-time for free.
“If you think suicide is an escape from pain, guess what guys? You’re talking to a guy who’s died, and it’s not,” he told the students.
The pain of a bad experience might never go away, but with that pain comes even greater strength to overcome it, he said – but only if you choose to pursue it.
“If you wake up in the morning looking for pain, that’s all you’re going to find. But if you get up in the morning looking for strength, looking for hope, looking for help, that’s what you’ll find.”
Nash said many of the at-risk youths he and his band worked with didn’t realize they had tremendous gifts. One troubled woman in a Calgary prison they met was a talented singer, and wrote and performed a song at one of their concerts about her struggle with suicide. Another youth they worked with, Don Amero, was nominated for two Juno Awards last year.
Band guitarist Bryan Beach said one of Nash’s talks helped him overcome his struggle with mental illness and addiction.
“I am indebted to this man, I love this man with my whole heart,” he said in an interview.
Scores of students stayed behind to thank Nash after his address, some with tears in their eyes.
“It’s amazing to see the breakthroughs that happen after the show,” Nash said in an interview, with many students saying they had the same dark thoughts he once did.
Nash said he had received 621 suicide notes from students who handed them over to him after his talks, as well as many razor blades and other instruments of self-harm.
“It seems there’s not a school you go to where you’re not going to see someone hurting.”
Nash encouraged students to reach out to each other for help and to help, and for parents to be there for their kids.
“I don’t want other people to have to die like I did before they start to live.”