TORONTO — A stigma exists around mental illness, and people end up taking their own lives because they are too embarrassed to talk about it.
“The thing about mental illness is that I don’t think it should be whispered. I think it should be spoken loud and clear, be honest and up front,” said Michael Landsberg, a sports journalist and the host of the Sports Network (TSN)’s Off the Record, to some 150 young professionals at Mount Sinai Hospital recently.
Landsberg spoke about his 15-year battle with depression at “On the Record with Michael Landsberg,” an event planned by the hospital’s Future Sinai committee.
Lansberg started his broadcasting career as an anchor on TSN’s SportsCentre and then went on to host Off the Record in 1997. He decided that as a TV personality, he had a unique platform from which to share his story and help others.
“For so long, it seemed like nobody talked about depression,” he said. “Three years ago, I began sharing my story and the response changed my life.”
To share his story, Landsberg created a documentary called Darkness and Hope: Depressions, Sports and Me, in which he says that “athletes are living in the world’s most intense spotlight but have struggled to find their way out of the darkness.”
In the documentary, Landsberg interviewed Olympic speed skater and cyclist Clara Hughes, hockey player Stéphane Richer and baseball player Darryl Strawberry, who have all suffered from depression. In the clip, Strawberry echoed Landsberg’s feelings about depression. “Sports were a cover up for me. Everyone said you have everything, but I didn’t feel happy inside,” Strawberry said.
Unlike other illnesses, depression and mental illnesses carry a stigma that makes people afraid to open up. “What I hear all the time is, ‘Snap out of it. What do you have to be depressed about?’ and that’s why people don’t share,” Landsberg said.
When suffering from a mental illness, people are more reluctant to get help than with physical problems. “If you had a toothache, you wouldn’t say, ‘I don’t want to go to the dentist,’” Landsberg said.
Another common misconception is that depression is just sadness. “It’s not,” he said. “Everyone will feel sad, but it’s a huge leap to get to depression. We just happen to use the same word for those two different experiences.”
While there is both a genetic and environmental component to mental illness, Lansberg said he does not believe he was born depressed, but admits he was very anxious as a child. “I had fears that were totally irrational. When I’m anxious over and over again, it turns to depression,” he said. “My deep depression in 2008 was based on my anxiety over the chronic condition my daughter had.”
Landsberg said that as a public figure, he feels it is his duty to speak out about depression. “Education is strength. This doesn’t take any bravery or guts. If you knew all you had to do to change lives, to save lives, was to talk about depression, how would you start the conversation?”
Opening the event, Dr. Jared Peck, associate head of ambulatory psychiatry at Mount Sinai, said that “4,000 suicides occur every year in Canada. Mental illness has a huge impact on the functioning of society, yet we don’t talk about it.
“Or when we do, all too often it’s in a negative light. How often have you received a request to donate to a walk for depression?”