Peace of minds

Donors want students to know they're not alone

Amie Filkow - 09 May 2019

Peter Lougheed Leadership College student Kayla Gulka wanted to help students struggling with mental health, so she and her classmates made a video to share her story. It was one in a series of videos funded by Brian and Cecile Silzer, whose daughter, Catherine, died by suicide.

Brian Silzer remembers one of the last times he mowed his daughter's lawn. Catherine, '03 BA, '06 BPE, a busy fitness trainer, couldn't always tend to the yard work so her dad pitched in. One day he found himself faced with a monstrous tractor tire - as wide as he was tall - lying in the grass. He knew he couldn't move it alone so he asked Catherine to help. She swiftly lifted the 300-pound tire by herself, hauled it upright and rolled it out of the way.

Catherine's ability to carry the weight of that tire speaks volumes about her strength and determination, but also about her mental illness. She pushed the proverbial tire uphill for a long time - until multiple stressors made it impossible to do so.

Catherine Silzer died by suicide in August 2015, at the age of 37. "She hit a place where she couldn't find her way," says Brian. "We were aware of some of her personal challenges but we couldn't recognize the depth of the pain she was feeling."

Today Brian, '69 BSc, '71 Dip(Ed), '78 MEd, and Cecile Silzer, '71 BEd, '91 MLIS, want to help lighten the load other students are carrying. The couple's generous support of four U of A mental health initiatives gives more students access to services when they need it most. One of those initiatives is a series of videos that highlight mental health challenges and campus resources for students, faculty and staff.

U of A grad Catherine Silzer died by suicide in August 2015. Her parents want to make sure students with similar struggles get the help they need.

Peter Lougheed Leadership College student Kayla Gulka produced one of the videos as part of a class project. The Silzers' story touched Gulka personally because she faced similar struggles to Catherine. A car accident in her second year of university brought Gulka's pre-existing anxiety to a breaking point. She was afraid to leave her house and withdrew from social interaction.

"I didn't want people to know how bad it was, so I dug myself into isolation," Gulka says.

"The Silzers' gift brings light to so many students on campus. I want students to watch my video and know that they aren't alone, that it's OK to struggle, and that there's a whole campus and community here to look after them."

Helping students is a familiar and cherished role for Brian, who served as U of A registrar for close to 20 years. He and Cecile see their gift as an extension of his longtime work in support of student success.

"The goal of these programs is to help students rebound, so they have the motivation to go and seek help," says Cecile. "I like to think that if Catherine were at university now, all of these things would help her."

For the Silzers, providing support and raising awareness for campus mental health programs gives them hope that more students will get the help they need.

It also gives the couple peace.

"Catherine was a wonderful person who might have won her battles had things been different," Brian says. "We want to leave a legacy that will honour her brave struggle."

If you or someone you know needs help now, visit or call 780-492-4773.