Friends and family of Barrie native and popular van-life social media influencer Lee MacMillan are devastated after police confirmed she died by suicide late last week.
According to the Santa Barbara Police Department, MacMillan was hit and killed by a train on Friday, March 26. Authorities said the 28-year-old had been reported missing after she left her Santa Barbara home earlier that day without taking her car, wallet, keys, identification and cellphone. They feared she may have been suicidal after she had expressed suicidal ideation for the last month.
MacMillan, who grew up in Barrie, had been living in Santa Barbara, Calif., but had spent the last several years travelling and documenting her van life on Instagram. Her account, Life With Lee, had nearly 80,000 followers from around the world.
She had reportedly been the victim of cyber-bullying and several of her own Instagram stories pointed to those struggles.
“If what I have to say doesn’t sit well with you then I wish you well as our feeds untangle. I am a real person who has grown, changed and moved on with my life. If you have a hard time seeing me happily in love then please unfollow me now," she wrote in a Dec. 13, 2020, Instagram post. "I will not accept any comments about my past relationship. If you wish to leave your unsolicited opinion of my personal choice about who I date you will no longer be welcome here and I will block you.
“This is an open-minded community where I encourage constructive and thoughtful dialogue, but if you leave unproductive hateful comments you will be blocked as well," MacMillan added. "I am well aware of the consequences of sharing my life online. That doesn’t excuse people for being rude, careless or abrasive. If you hide behind a hidden profile leaving comments that don’t add value to this community you will also be unwelcome.”
In a post a few weeks prior, MacMillan expressed her fear about sharing the news she’d found love again.
“I am genuinely afraid to get hurt again… from the unsolicited opinions I will receive online when people who know nothing about me will feel righteous behind their keyboards and hidden profiles because what — they don’t like to see change? Yes, of course — just ignore them — you can’t please everyone, nor do I want to," she wrote.
"I have done a lot of inner work to create boundaries around whose opinions matter to me. But, it’s who I am to my core to think about other people and I don’t want to hurt anyone, ever. So I’ve been keeping this exciting news close to my heart for a while now. It makes me a little sad that something so exciting and special also has this veil of fear attached to it," MacMillan added.
Steve Ricalis and the team at Donaleighs restaurant in downtown Barrie are still trying to wrap their heads around the loss of one of their own.
“She was a great girl. There is not one bad thing I could say about that girl," Ricalis told BarrieToday. "She was smart, articulate. It’s just so sad that her life ended that way."
MacMillan, who had worked at the Dunlop Street East pub on and off for about four years before setting off on her trek around the globe, was never shy in sharing her struggles, he added.
“She was back here about six months ago and we knew she was having a hard time," Ricalis said. "She wasn’t shy about it. We all tried to talk about it. It’s just so sad she had to go through that and be in such a dark place by herself. I guess she just wanted the pain to end.”
Although an in-person celebration isn’t possible at the moment due to COVID, Ricalis said he and the rest of the team will find a way to honour their friend.
“We have an annual golf tournament and pick a charity," he said. "We will do charity of her parents' choice.”
Barrie photographer Nic Laferriere was friends with MacMillan, and while he chose not to speak publicly about her death out of respect to the family, he expressed his grief on her Instagram page.
“Could not only light up any room she walked into, but also make every individual she came into contact with feel seen AND heard. One of the best friends you could ever ask for. Love you,” he wrote.
“After living an extraordinary life and fighting a brave battle with depression, our hearts are shattered. … She was the brightest light, a magnetic force of nature and was loved by so, so many,” reads a statement on the GoFundMe page set up by friends and family — including her partner Jordon Chiu — to raise money for mental health awareness and to combat cyber-bullying.
“If we can do one thing for Lee now, in the midst of this soul-crushing loss, it’s to spread the message that mental health is just as real as physical health, and that illness can strike anyone, no matter how unlikely they may seem," Chiu added. "Lee's struggles with her mental health were also compounded in her last months of life by persistent and often vicious cyber-bullying, and we want to drive home the point that cyber-bullying has real-life consequences — the people on the other side of the screen have real lives, real feelings, and real struggles of their own."
Chiu, who is organizing the fundraiser which has already raised nearly $120,000, noted MacMillan was an advocate for mental health and was always candid and open about her own struggles.
“She was receiving help: from professionals, from family, from friends. She had support around her," Chiu said. "She was not alone, she was not trying to fight this alone. And yet she still succumbed to this terrible illness. It is more nuanced than we can, or do, appreciate or understand.”
Chiu asked people to check in on their loved ones.
"Ask them genuinely how they’re doing. Be available to help. To listen. To offer help. Remove the stigma of asking for help,” he said.
Chui also created the hashtag #speakupforlee and is urging people to share it.
“You never know who is struggling quietly," he said. "And hold your loved ones tight. Tell them you love them. Because life can change in an instant. We will miss her with every (fibre) of our hearts.”