Landsberg, Hughes say toughest adversary is depression
Published Wednesday, February 8, 2012 6:43AM EST
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 7:23AM EDT
Clara Hughes and Michael Landsberg are both used to fighting battles.
For Hughes, those battles have been played out on the world stage. As an Olympian who has won six medals in two sports in both the summer and winter games, she has gone up against the world's best athletes and come out on top.
For Landsberg, his battles have been fought over the airwaves as the outspoken, fiery TV sports talk show host who is never afraid to tackle the most controversial issues, with the toughest guests.
But both Hughes and Landsberg agree that the biggest adversary they have ever entered the ring with, is depression. And both are now committed to sharing their own stories in order to help remove the stigma around the illness, and to encourage people to talk.
"The struggle I went through, and sharing it, has had the most impact in a positive way, more so than anything I've done at the Olympics," Hughes told CTVNews.ca from Utah, where she is currently in the midst of a block of high altitude training.
Hughes is the chief spokesperson for Bell's Let's Talk campaign, a national initiative on Feb. 8 designed to remove the stigma around mental illness and to encourage people to talk openly about their personal struggles.
"I hope it can help break down that stigma so people can feel that it's not something that's their fault or something that they should be ashamed of, that it's something that is such a very real thing for so many people and that we need to change the idea of what mental illness is," she said.
Landsberg, host of Off The Record on TSN, has also become a force to be reckoned with in the battle against mental illness in Canada. In the days following the death of Wade Belak, Landsberg wrote a blog about his own struggle with depression and how it was a common thread between him and the former Maple Leaf tough guy, a personal friend.
That blog went viral, and Landsberg quickly became a sounding board for thousands of Canadians who related to his experience and were encouraged by his story.
"All of a sudden a guy who gets maybe five emails a day from viewers got 1,000 in 10 minutes," Landsberg told CTVNews.ca.
He quickly realized that his story was resonating with people who had previously felt isolated in their struggle, unaware of how common their ailment is. Landsberg made it his mission to personally respond to as many emails as he could, and decided that he had an important role to play as an advocate.
"I have not a single shred of me that's afraid to tell my story. I have this great platform working on television and having access to media and I saw the impact me just talking about it on television had on people, and I say that it's my obligation now," he said.
Bell is donating 5 cents to mental health programs for every text message and long-distance phone call made by Bell customers on Feb. 8. In 2011, that resulted in a donation of over $3.3 million, on top of $50 million the company has committed to Canadian mental health.
Landsberg and Hughes agreed the statistics show that mental illness is much more common among Canadians than many people think.
According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, and the remaining four will be affected through a friend, family member or colleague.
However, one of the biggest hurdles for health professionals trying to address those issues is the stigma surrounding mental health.
CAMH statistics show that just 50 per cent of Canadians would tell friends or co-workers that they have a family member with mental illness, compared with 72 per cent who would openly discuss a cancer diagnosis or 68 per cent who would discuss diabetes.
And 46 per cent of Canadians believe people often use the term "mental illness" as an excuse for bad behaviour.
Landsberg attempts to dispel some of the myths around mental illness in a CTV original documentary that will be airing on Feb. 8. In "Darkness and Hope: Depression, Sports and Me," Landsberg will guide viewers on the journey from depression to recovery in the context of sports – with Hughes, baseball player Darryl Strawberry and former NHLer Stephane Richer sharing intimate details of their own struggle, in the film.
The whole point, he said, is to dispel the notion that depression and other forms of mental illness are symptoms of "personal weakness," or that those suffering from them simply aren't doing enough to help themselves.
"Clara Hughes is arguably our greatest athlete ever and people in the sports she competes in say she is the toughest person they have every met… So if that person can be dragged down by depression, then how do you still believe it's a weakness?" Landsberg asked.
The simple act of starting a conversation and getting people thinking differently about depression and mental illness represents progress in the fight to erase stigma and raise awareness, Landsberg said.
"It's the only way to reduce the stigma," he said. "If there's no talk, there's no change, and if there's no change there are people that will suffer their entire lives without getting help. And if there's no change there will be people who take their own lives. The stakes are so high."
Hughes agrees that a single conversation can have a life-changing effect. For her it was a health professional who approached her in the aftermath of winning her first two Olympic medals, and suggested that maybe she needed some help.
While millions of Canadians saw Hughes as a powerful Olympian with a bubbly personality and a huge smile, that person saw past the façade and realized that not everything was right.
Hughes said her own personal experience has opened her eyes to the fact that sometimes those who seem to have the most reason to be happy – like a couple of hard-earned Olympic medals on the shelf – are dealing with the deepest depression.
She said she came to resent her first two medals because she felt as though she had sacrificed so much for them, and they didn't deliver the happiness or satisfaction or "daily sense that life was awesome," that she had expected they would.
"I think the people who seem like they have everything are often living in such an extreme situation in life...they often don't have a lot of balance," Hughes said.
"And for me as a young athlete I can say that part of the problem was I didn't have any balance in my life. It was all about succeeding and training harder than anyone else and I dug a hole so deep emotionally it took two years to come out of."
Both Landsberg and Hughes agree that their work raising awareness around mental illness, and sharing about their own experience, has been among the most important accomplishments of their lives.
And both emphasized that it doesn't take a professional athlete or a sports personality to make a difference. Anyone who recognizes a friend or a family member's struggle, and reaches out to help, has the potential to save a life, they said.
Follow Andy Johnson on Twitter @AjinTO
Join the conversation: On Wednesday, Feb. 8 CTVNews.ca will host a Bell Let's Talk live chat and livestream from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET featuring special guests and experts appearing on CTV News Channel, BNN, and Canada AM.