Tuesday 5 March 2013

"Sick Not Weak"

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I recently attended the Canadian Mental Health Association's (CMHA) Bottom Line conference on mental illness and the workplace. For someone passionate about this topic, the conference was what a trip to Disneyland is to a child. I was overjoyed to be there, ready to lap up every word uttered by each and every presenter. I was ready to change the world with my new gained knowledge!

My employer was a sponsor of the conference and a fellow Human Resources colleague and I were chosen to attend. It was a wonderful opportunity to connect with many like-minded souls and discuss a topic that is really one of the last social taboos in society - mental illness. Throw the workplace into the mix and we are really onto a hot topic.

The keynote speaker was Michael Landsberg, sports broadcaster and host of TSN's Off the Record. He was, in a word, energizing. In 2008 he suffered a major depressive episode while covering the Grey Cup. It wasn't until an interview with Canadian hockey great, Stephane Richer, however, that he went public with his struggle. For those of you unaware of who Richer is, he is a Canadian hockey legend who won the Stanley Cup twice in his career. Within a week of one of these victories, he tried to kill himself. Yes, even the greats, our sports heroes who seem to have the world at their feet, are not immune to the devastating impact of severe depression.

But back to Landsberg for a minute. It wasn't a conscious decision for him to "come out" about his fight with depression, nor had he been hiding it. He was simply trying to create a connection and some interesting conversation with Richer. To do this, he was using a commonality between the two of them. Well, the result was instantaneous and impactful. Almost immediately after the interview was broadcast he was inundated with positive email from viewers, most of them male. And we know that males, statistically, are less likely to talk about mental illness and seek help. He had made a huge impact without even meaning to do so.

Landsberg's key message, the one thing that he asked us to take away with us, is this: "Sick Not Weak." Quite simply, being depressed or diagnosed with mental illness is not weakness - it's illness. We often feel weak when suffering but that does not mean that we are weak of character. Big difference.

He spoke about what depression feels like, for him. One of his analogies in particular really resonated for me. He said that when he is depressed he wakes up and instantly knows that, no matter what, he will not feel joy on that particular day. If he were to win the lottery, he would be able to recognize that it is a good thing but he would not feel any joy about it. If you have never suffered depression, can you even imagine how that is possible? Well, it's possible.

He also spoke about the worry that many of us with chronic depression face. When you are well you are worried that the darkness will come back. When you are sick, you worry that you will never be well again.

Now, the conference was really about mental health in the workplace and Landsberg spoke about that as well. He said that even companies that are encouraging the conversation about mental health, still have a long way to go. For example, he works for Bell Canada, the organization that promotes Let's Talk Day each year. When colleagues at work speak to him about their mental health issues, it's still in a whispered conversation with that question at the end, "Will you please keep this a secret?"

So how do we make headway? How do we address the elephant in the room? We know that 1 in 5 Canadians will suffer from mental illness in their lifetime. We also know that each day in Canada 500,000 of us will call in sick due to mental illness. Why are companies still ignoring this health and safety issue? I think it's because they don't quite know how or where to start. And maybe they are a little afraid of the topic.

Here's my answer: start simply. How about having some conversations about it? How about a ten minute conversation in a team meeting about mental health? How about sharing some resources? There are lots of free resources out there if you just look.

The Canadian Mental Health Association in British Columbia has a great program called Bounce Back. It's free with a doctor's referral and includes a DVD, a workbook, and a community coach. Did I mention that it's free? And an organization very close to my heart, Partners For Mental Health, will be launching a spring campaign called Not Myself Today at Work. The campaign will run from May to June and I'll have lots more information about that in upcoming posts - stay tuned!

During his speech, Landsberg posed a question to the room. He asked us to put our hand up if we believed that he was to be commended for speaking openly about his mental illness. Of course, hands shot up around the room. He disagreed with all of us who put a hand up. He feels that it's a responsibility. It's not about being brave - it's about doing what is right and what needs to be done. I agree. But, until more people stand up, we need to commend those who do. And remember, "Sick Not Weak."

KB xo



  1. thank you . many points really hit home with me. Waking up and knowing, as well as being nervous when feeling well (thinking Mr. Darkness is just around the corner)

  2. Kristen. I send your blog to a few people including my daughter who has been very supportive. She has a friend who's 9 year old son tried to hang himself. Long story but the reason I'm writing is that she told me today she has had discussions with her boss on depression and his statement was that if he has any hint that someone has a mental issue, he refuses to hire them. I'm so upset right now I could scream.... Hoping Danielle reads this as well. You guys are my heroes.

  3. Oh, Dave - how truly awful for that little boy. The pain that he must be going through. I am very glad that your daughter is supportive. We all need to support each other - it's a big part of how we get better. As for work, sounds like her boss is uneducated about mental illness which is why I write this blog - to change the way people think and to eliminate stigma. My next post will be about conversations in the workplace. Thanks for your comments - I truly appreciate them (and Danielle's, too!).

    1. Dave - wow. 9 years old? So scary. It leaves me wondering how we get the message out. As for the boss, I agree with Kristin, ignorance. I would be will to bet that he has already hired people with mental illness because as we all know, so many people hide it however they can.

      I write my blog for so many reasons, mainly for my own sake. But, I also know it helps keep the conversation going.

  4. Great post again Kristen. I admire Michael Landsberg. He never meant to be an advocate, and yet I believe he reaches an audience that so many can't. He is involved in the sports world, a world of toughness, both physical and mental. Sports fan watch his show. Men watch his show. If he can somehow find a way to reach an audience that others can't then I say all the power to him.

  5. As always, thanks very much for your comments, Danielle!


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