Karen Liberman was uniquely qualified to lead the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario (MDAO). As she candidly and freely admitted, she spent 15 years in “indescribable emotional, cognitive and physical pain,” resulting from severe clinical depression. She submitted to six psychiatrists, 17 hospital stays, 27 different medications, 24 electro-convulsive therapy treatments and countless amounts of psychotherapy.
But on the morning of Aug. 27, 1997, she awoke at precisely 10:37 a.m. on the psychiatric ward in Sunnybrook hospital in Toronto, “and I was well,” she wrote on the association’s website. “I walked out of the hospital at noon on that day, never to look back. I was well.”
She owed her spontaneous remission to a single dose of a new medication, which she would continue to rely on for the next 12 years.
Liberman began speaking on behalf of the association. That led to regular volunteer work, then a position on its board, then its presidency and, finally, she became its executive director, a position she held from 2002 to 2011.
“It was as if I’d been (on) a long, dark journey my whole professional life to come home to this place,” she wrote.
An award-winning and much-honoured advocate, she worked to support those affected by depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, and to dispel the stigma associated with those and other conditions.
Liberman died in Toronto on May 24 at the age of 73. The cause of death is to be determined.
“She brought drive, her passion and her indefatigable energy to the association and helped elevate it to its current vital role on our community through her compassionate persistence and her advocacy and her endless creativity,” Dr. Anthony Levitt, head of the Brain Sciences Program at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and one of Liberman’s physicians, eulogized at her funeral.
She brought drive, her passion and her indefatigable energy to the association.
– Anthony Levitt
“Although I was her doctor, she was my teacher,” Levitt said.
Liberman was born in Toronto in 1945 to Mary and Louis Mactinger. Her father worked in the rag trade on Spadina Avenue. She graduated from Forest Hill Collegiate and from teachers’ college, and began teaching French at the elementary level.
“She came from her own lived experience,” said Ann Marie MacDonald, the MDAO’s current executive director. “She always remained positive and had the ability to be laser-focused on the individual she met.” When it came to the association’s emphasis on peer support, MacDonald said, “She was a beacon and a role model.”
Among the innovative programs Liberman initiated were the Mad About You fundraising gala, Laughing like Crazy, a 16-week program that used humour to help people deal with mood disorders, and Check Up From the Neck Up, a first-of-its-kind online questionnaire that allowed people to get feedback on whether they may have mental health issues.
“She helped everybody,” said her sister, Gloria Medline. “Anybody could call her and ask for her help. She would get them to the doctor or on the right road. She fought bravely and just kept going.”
Liberman was active in Ve’ahavta and played a significant role in creating the Jewish humanitarian group’s homework clubs for Somali immigrants in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood.
She was a beacon and a role model.
– Ann Marie MacDonald
“Her beautiful spirit led us down a road where we became stronger and more confident as Jews and educators,” eulogized Ve’ahavta’s founder, Avrum Rosensweig. “Her vivacious smile brought a lightness to our task and made the program one of our most popular.”
Levitt said that just as the LGBTQ community has sought to reclaim words like “gay” and “queer,” Liberman also worked to reclaim words such as “crazy,” “mad,” “insane” and “nuts.”
“When she told me that this was her goal, I said, ‘Wow! That’s really ambitious. But you are just crazy enough to pull it off,’” said Levitt.
Liberman is survived by her partner, David Goldman, her sister, Gloria Medline, brother Martin, children, Jordan and Elana, and five grandchildren.