Working to erase the stigma of mental illness

By: Jon Willemsen
TSN’s Michael Landsberg has seen a big improvement in the discourse surrounding mental health since he first started speaking publicly about his battles with depression.

A 1614 Illustration of the brain by J .Voort Kamp


A 1614 Illustration of the brain by J .Voort Kamp

A 1614 Illustration of the brain by J .Voort Kamp

TSN’s Michael Landsberg has seen a big improvement in the discourse surrounding mental health since he first started speaking publicly about his battles with depression.

“I think we are living in a time where gradually people are starting to realize that this stigma that’s existed for so long is incredibly damaging,” said Landsberg. “We talk about mental illness now, whereas before people hid it from everyone because they were ashamed of it.”

Last year, CTV aired an hour and a half long documentary centred around Landsberg and depression in the sports world. It featured stories from Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes, New York Mets right fielder Darryl Strawberry and Montreal Canadiens winger Stéphane Richer.

Landsberg first started speaking publicly about his own depression in 2009, when Stéphane Richer appeared on his own show “Off the Record.” For about a minute on air, the two talked about their stories. Landsberg said the response he got from the show inspired him to keep talking.

Landsberg’s documentary was aired as part of Bell The Let’s Talk, a national mental health awareness campaign created by TSN’s parent company, Bell Canada. This year, Bell pledged to donate five cents to mental health programs in Canada for every tweet, Facebook share, text message by those with Bell service, and long-distance call made by Bell customers during Let’s Talk day. In total, Bell raised more than $4.8 million dollars.

Mary Deacon, the chair of Bell’s Let’s Talk mental health initiative, said she and her organization thought this year’s campaign went far beyond what they were expecting.

“We were absolutely thrilled to see so many Canadians across the country who were willing to become engaged in the discussion of mental illness,” she said.

Deacon said Bell launched their Let’s Talk mental health initiative, which is the overall awareness campaign, back in 2010, and she said Let’s Talk Day has been the most important element of that campaign since the event began in 2011.

“Our overall Let’s Talk campaign is based on four main areas of focus: anti-stigma, care and access, health in the workplace, and research on mental illness,” she said. “Our Bell Let’s Talk Day is really at the heart of the anti-stigma pillar because it is the most public way we engage with Canadians to be part of the conversation on mental health.”

This was the third year Bell organized a Let’s Talk Day, and Deacon said they have pledged more money each year because the annual event is continuing to grow, especially due to social media participation.

Bell pledged over $3.3 million in the inaugural 2011 event, and the amount rose to over $3.9 million in 2012 before seeing an even larger increase in this year’s edition.

Landsberg, who said he battles depression and anxiety, hosts dedicated his entire Feb. 12 “Off the Record” show to discuss mental illness with professional athletes to help create audience awareness of Bell’s “extraordinary” campaign.

“I think Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign is one of the best public campaigns of any kind ever because it’s not really just about raising money,” he said. “The value of it is in the awareness that they raised on that day by showing how people are finally willing to talk about mental illness.”

He said the main reason for the success of Let’s Talk Day was that it was one of the first times people thought it was “in vogue” to talk about mental illness on one particular day.

Deacon also said convincing the public it was actually cool to discuss mental illness was a huge part of the campaign, and she said the biggest factor in their success is the huge audience reach Bell Canada has as a telecommunications company.

“I believe our ability to get the attention of so many Canadians was amplified by virtue of the business we’re in,” she said. “We are a telecommunications company and a media company, so we have been able to bring the Bell brand and our assets to create this giant megaphone for mental health awareness.”

Ottawa city councillor Allan Hubley has also been able to use his public voice to bring some attention to the cause. Hubley said he began taking mental health awareness as a very serious issue after his 15-year-old son, Jamie, killed himself in October 2011 to escape the daily bullying he received from his classmates at school and online.

Hubley said he did not know his son was dealing with depression, which he said he believes is the main reason why Jamie is not here today.

“When we talk about mental health awareness, one thing I want to focus on is to help people understand what it means to be depressed,” he said.

He added that he has seen a dramatic improvement in mental health awareness over recent years, not only on a national level, but in the Ottawa area as well.

“There are already a number of campaigns here that are already doing a good job of raising awareness and/or raising funds for mental health programs,” he said. “You see that with high-profile initiatives like the Do it for Daron Foundation for Daron Richardson, and the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health with Daniel Alfredsson leading it.”

Hubley said he focuses his own efforts in the community because he sees the potentially destructive consequences for someone to be bullied while dealing with a mental illness.

“Young people may have the ability to do great things in the world, but if they’re bullied when they’re young, you can destroy their self-confidence and ability to make constructive relationships,” he said. “We need to wipe out bullying from our schools and try to help any kids who are contemplating suicide.”

One local organization in particular that offers help to youths who struggle with mental health issues is the Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa.

Lina Harper, a communications officer for the organization, said they offer free counselling with social workers to any youths who want to talk to someone about their problems, and they launched a youth mental health walk-in clinic in January 2011 to provide immediate counselling services for children and their families.

But Harper said there are always financial difficulties, which means organizations like their own will have to operate solely on as much assistance as they can afford to provide.

“The economic reality is a really tough one for most non-profit and charitable organizations,” she said. “A lot of us totally rely on government funding and the money raised through our charities. There definitely needs to be more money poured into youth programs, so we can continue our recent progress in areas like youth mental health.”

Harper added that she thought it was important for her organization to help youths between the ages of 16 to 24, who are going through what she calls the “transitional age” going from being a youth to becoming an adult.

Renée Ouimet, the director in the capacity building and education division for the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Ottawa branch, said she considers it necessary to educate high schools students in particular about mental health.

“If we can increase the knowledge in their minds about what mental illness means, we can teach them at a crucial age why mental health is a serious subject and why the stigma surrounding mental health problems shouldn’t exist,” she said.

Ekaterina Totina, the president of the Student Alliance for Mental Health at Carleton University, said this idea of a transitional age is also relevant at the university level.

“University is a time where we can learn new things, so our group tries to increase awareness about mental health at Carleton by staging fundraisers and events around campus to raise money and teach people why it is wrong to stigmatize these problems,” she said.

Hubley said he speaks for many people when he admits that he has seen more growth locally and nationally over the last five years in mental health awareness than at any other point before. He said he believes that large and effective campaigns like Bell Let’s Talk will only help these positive trends going forward.

Landsberg said even though the success of huge awareness campaigns like Bell Let’s Talk show how public perception about mental illness is constantly improving, he acknowledges there is still a very long way to go in the fight to lessen the stigma attached to it.

“[Understanding mental illness] will always be a struggle because there is no physical example of a mental illness, so somewhere along the line there has to be faith that what you’re saying is true, and that will always be difficult for some people to accept,” he said.

“I don’t think there will ever be a world with absolutely no stigma attached to mental illness,” he added. “But maybe we’ll get to the point where nearly everyone in our society has a better understanding at least of why that stigma is wrong.”

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