Alex Binkley on Who's Who of Mental Illness

Alex Binkley is a foremost political and economic analyst, whose website is Readers will be aware that his columns in True North Perspective have foreseen political and economic developments in Canada. This week in ...
The Binkley Report

A Who’s Who of Mental Illness

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

Clara Hughes18 May 2012 — Since the release in 2006 of the Senate report Out of the Shadows at Last (For PDF version, click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2), mental illness has gained a lot of long overdue attention. Well known Canadians have risked the stigma traditionally attached to any suggestion of a mental illness to talk openly about their condition.

With the milestone reached by the recent release of the Mental Health Commission of Canada report Changing Directions, Changing Lives and its strategies and 109 recommendations for tackling the issue, it’s time to look back at some of the well known figures who bared their souls with personal accounts about mental illness.

And remember some of those who were overwhelmed by it.

The engaging smile of Olympic medalist Clara Hughes has reached out to us as part of Bell’s Lets Talk program to encourage people with mental illness to speak about it and for the rest of us to listen and learn.

Hearing her whole story as part of TSN sportscaster Michael Lansberg’s show that aired earlier this year on CTV drove home a line in Changing Directions. It said everyone with a mental illness needs a job, a home and a friend. Her husband helped pull her out of her depression.

In the show, Lansberg, hockey star Stephane Richer and baseball great Darryl Strawberry also recounted their personal struggles with depression and how family members saved them.

Even though they have recovered, the agony of their experiences was plain to see.

Elizabeth Manley, an Olympic silver medalist in figure skating, almost dropped out of the sport at 17 because of depression. She said during a visit to Ottawa that her parents had split, her coach of 10 years had quit and she was sent to the U.S. for training. She remembers having no one to talk to. The diminutive athlete lost 35 pounds and returned to Ottawa to get help. A year later she was back on the ice.

Ron Ellis, who starred on Toronto Maple Leafs teams of the 1960s and 70s, has teamed up with the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health to create public service announcements that challenge the stigma of mental illness and encourages people to get help.

Ellis, a member of the Stanley Cup champions in 1967, had to overcome depression and has become a public speaker about the stigma surrounding mental illness. “I often use humour when speaking about mental illness. It's a wonderful icebreaker that makes it easier to discuss subjects that might otherwise make people uncomfortable."

Ottawa Senators Captain Daniel Alfredsson has championed the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health’s campaign to raise awareness of mental health issues and fight the stigma surrounding mental illness. He does it for his younger sister who suffers anxiety disorder.

It isn’t just sports stars who are affected by mental illness. Liberal Leader Bob Rae has struggled with depression and Labour Minister Lisa Raitt admitted after the Changing Directions report came out that she suffered with post partum depression after the birth of her second child.

However not everyone escapes the wrath of mental illness. When depression became too much for NHLers Rick Rypien and Wade Belak in 2011, they put an end to their misery as do about 4,000 Canadians a year. Many fear the stigma attached to the disease or see no escape from its clutches.

Hideki Irabu, a Japanese pitcher who starred in the big leagues for years, committed suicide last year after losing his battle with depression and alcohol. Former NFL Lineman Junior Seau committed suicide earlier this year. He suffered from depression.
Former Ontario Premier John Roberts battled depression for years before he committed suicide.

Mike Wilson, a former minister of finance and ambassador to Washington, lost his son Cameron to suicide related to mental illness in 1995.

David Batters, a popular former Conservative MP, took his life when depression overwhelmed him. Batters was the kind of MP that Parliament doesn’t have enough. He was first elected in 2004 and decided not to run again in 2006 so he could focus on dealing with his severe depression and anxiety.

The Batters family made his funeral a public event rather than hide the cause of his death. Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a compassionate eulogy. “We need to know that mental illness like Dave's is shockingly common in our society. It affects the great and the small alike despite the stigma that still too often surrounds it.

“Other politicians have carried the same burden,” he said. “In fact, perhaps the two greatest English-speaking politicians in history, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, struggled with depression.”

Harper also tackled the stigma attached to mental illness. “The science has progressed but we still don't know enough about depression, and less about suicide. But we know this much: depression can strike the sturdiest of souls. It cares not how much you have achieved nor how much you have to live for. Severe anxiety and depression are concentrated among men and women in their primary working years, and, most sadly, in their adolescent children.”

Wilson says his son “pleaded with us not to tell people that he had been hospitalized for a mental illness. Afraid of being judged by friends and family or fired by employers, Canadians are still too afraid to talk about the most significant health care problem facing us.

“Mental illness is the No. 1 cause of workplace disability in Canada,” he said. “It costs the Canadian economy $51 billion annually. Every single day, 500,000 Canadians are absent from work due to a mental illness or addiction – picture the entire city of Hamilton – off sick today.

“In a 2008 poll, half of Canadians said they would hide a family member’s mental illness from their friends or colleagues,” Wilson added. “Too ashamed to talk about it, Canadians and people right around the globe are more often than not ignoring the issue and suffering in silence. Only a third of Canadians who actually need care ever receive it. 1 in 3! If you’re a child, it’s 1 in 6!”

In addition to Bell’s program, Canada Post has been raising funds from its employees and the public for its Foundation for Mental Health. Desjardins Finance Security also has a program.

There’s many more stories out there waiting to be told.