If there are three words Boundary Trails Health Foundation fundraising banquet guest speaker Michael Landsberg would want to leave with people, they are the name of his charity, “Sick not Weak”.
The former host of TSN’s Off the Record has dealt with depression for two decades, and at his Oct. 25 speech in Morden, said it’s his goal to break the stigma.
“The stigma really comes down to this one thing which is the perception that mental illness like depression, which is what I’ve suffered from for 20 years, the perception is that it’s a weakness, not a sickness,” he said. “Because of that people don’t see it as a real sickness, because of that they’re afraid to share because people think it’s because of their own doing that they have this illness, that it’s a self inflicted wound, that somehow they have not been able to embrace the good things in their life for instance.”
“My goal is to show people that mental illness is a sickness,” he added.
That goal can be tough to reach. “I believe the stigma relates directly to one thing and that is our inability to prove that we have this illness,” he said.
Landsberg said most health conditions can be proven by blood tests, x-rays, MRIs, biopsies and other tests.
“I can’t in any way prove to you that I have this illness, and because of that there’s always going to be people that wonder, is it real?” he said.
He’s also battling the language that’s used since depression and anxiety are both used to describe an illness and an emotion.
“Everyone has down times, everyone gets sad, everyone is anxious at times,” he said. “Because of that I think those that have never suffered from the illness kind of think they have.”
Things are getting better, but Landsberg isn’t about to declare the battle won.
“My gut tells me yeah we’re making a little bit of progress, but one thing I’m sure of, that the stigma is still pervasive,” he said.
Landsberg said he had suffered from depression and had never shared it on television.
“Ten years later I had never spoken about it on TV, not because I was ashamed or embarrassed but because I thought no one would care,” he said. “Everybody in my life knew. My friends knew, my coworkers knew, everyone in my life but an audience that watched me knew about this and the only reason I didn’t share it with the audience was I didn’t think there was value to it.”
He admits it’s odd that he didn’t realize there would be value.
“What an idiot I was,” he said. “I never put it together that talking about it would normalize it, would destigmatize and would desensitize people to the whole idea, especially men, that we suffer from depression.”
The only reason he did speak about it was that he was interviewing Stanley Cup champion Stephane Richer. Before greeting him in the green room, Landsberg came across an article about Richer’s battle with depression. He asked Richer to share his story, and promised he would share his as well. “He told me about his suicide attempt, he told me how he had started to do better because he had eventually went to treatment and I said wow, my story outside of the suicide attempt and outside of the Stanley Cups that he won, my story is very similar,” he said.
Landsberg thought that was the end of that subject.
“The next day I started getting emails, 22 of them, 20 of them from men, all of them saying it was the first time in their lives that they’d seen two men talking about depression,” he said. “And the fact that we talked about it without shame and embarrassment, and without seeming weak, empowered them to share with me something they’d never shared with another human being.”
Landsberg responded to each email, not initially realizing the impact he had made. “Two and a half years later I find out from somebody who said ‘I wasn’t honest with you when we exchanged emails’. He said ‘I didn’t tell you I was in the closet with a belt around my neck and I was in the process of ending my life when you responded to my email’.”
That was 10 years ago, and since then Landsberg said he’s realized he can help others by simply sharing his own story. In fact, it’s something he enjoys.
“This takes no courage for me,” he said. “There’s no courage needed to get up on stage and talk about something I’m not ashamed of.”
To learn more go to SickNotWeak.com.