By BERNIE BELLAN What does it take to get individuals who either suffer from depression or are very close to someone who suffers from depression to open about their situations in front of an audience of more than 300 people?
Those who were in attendance at the Shaarey Zedek Thursday evening, November 3rd, got an answer to that question when well known television sports host Michael Landsberg led an absolutely riveting two hour discussion of depression.
Perhaps it was his amazing candor in discussing his own condition, or perhaps it was his combination of humour – often mixed with deadly sarcasm, and deep insight into what it’s like to be chronically depressed, that prompted one person after another to approach one of the microphones in the audience and begin to share their own often poignant stories. At one point in his presentation though, Landsberg did offer this insight: “You guys wouldn’t be here tonight if I weren’t in the media.”
Whatever it was – and Landsberg was the first to admit that he capitalizes on his own celebrity to draw people out, at the end of the evening, and as I was still madly scribbling notes (13 pages of them – the most I’ve ever written at one event), I just had to ask Landsberg: “Where can we go from here – how can the Jewish Child & Family Service (which organized the evening) extend the discussion in some way so that others who weren’t able to make it this particular evening might be able to benefit from a similar experience?”
Landsberg, as he often admitted during the evening, said he didn’t have an answer to that question, but he did urge anyone seeking to share his or her own experience to contact him directly at
Now, ordinarily what I try to do in writing about an event such as that which went on at the Shaarey Zedek is pick and choose among remarks that were made – sometimes putting them in a different order than how they were said, often trying to make everything seem more cohesive than it really was.
But, the event at the Shaarey Zedek which, by the way, had the straightforward title “Can We Talk about Depression?” was so very different from anything else I’d ever experienced that I thought I’d simply try and put down in writing some of the things that were said, in the order they were said. I hope it gives more of the flavour of how the evening went – and provides at least a glimpse of the impact that Landsberg had on anyone who was there.
The evening began with Rabbi Alan Green welcoming those in attendance. In his brief remarks he also said that “I want to make it clear to anyone that my office is open any time to discuss this difficult question.”
The two co-chairs for the evening, Karen Dana and Jennifer Ritter, took to the podium. Ritter noted that “at any given time almost three million Canadians suffer from depression.” The two women then introduced CBC radio host Marcy Markusa, who was described in the program as the “facilitator for the evening”, yet other than making a few brief remarks, then later opening up about her own familial problems with depression, Markusa had little to do.
She did acknowledge though that she “was part of a family that had many mental health challenges.” Growing up, she added, “I took it for granted that it was something that didn’t carry real stigma” because it ran through so much of her family.
Yet, Markusa admitted that when she interviewed Landsberg earlier in the week on Information Radio, he had asked her, “Why the somber tone about mental health?” (To be fair though, even though Landsberg himself has a deadly sense of humour, it would have been unrealistic to expect anyone conducting an interview on the subject of depression to be anything but somber.)
With the introductions over, Michael Landsberg took to the stage, wearing blue jeans, sneakers and a t-shirt that said” SICK (printed backwards) not weak”. Ever the polished TV personality, Landsberg was also wearing a wireless microphone that allowed him to walk around on the bimah; at some points he would sit down on a stair leading to the bimah and simply engage in a conversation with one or another individuals who had asked him a question. Although he told the audience that he had been doing this sort of thing for years, the spontaneity that he displayed, along with his sincere interest in hearing other’s stories, imbued the entire evening with the type of atmosphere that Landsberg likened to an AA meeting in terms of its prompting such deep-seated honesty from those who got up to speak.
Along with Landsberg, clinical psychologist Michelle Warren, who was seated in the front row but never took the stage herself, occasionally offered insights into some of the issues raised during the course of the evening. Her comments were never laced in clinical lexicon, however – something that one might have expected from a professional working in the field of mental health.
Landsberg began his remarks with an immediate disclosure of his own experience of depression: “In 2008 I spent my worst year with depression,” he said. “I’ve suffered with depression for 18 years, but for 10 years I never spoke about it on TV.
“On November 24, 2008 I was in Montreal, suffering from severe depression,” Landsberg continued. “I was thinking to myself: ‘I know why people take their lives.’
“All of us (who suffer from depression) suffer from two things,” Landsberg explained: “helplessness, and a deep sense of loneliness.”
At that point Landsberg asked members of the audience to raise their hands if they also suffered from depression. (I was seated in the second row and didn’t turn around to see how many had put up their hands, but I could see quite a few hands raised in the two rows parallel to me.) Landsberg said this “was the most honest audience” he had ever seen.
“Talking about my illness empowers others,” he suggested.
“I still have bad days. When I struggle the first thing that goes is my self esteem…it leads to a lack of confidence,” he said.
Just the day before, Landsberg noted, when he was still in Toronto, he had told his daughter that he “didn’t think he could do this” (coming to Winnipeg to speak).
What led Landsberg to go public with his own illness? It was in 2009, when he was about to interview retired hockey player Stephan Richer on his TSN show called “Off the Record”, that he entered the pre-interview room and saw Richer standing up against a wall.
“I knew he (Richer) suffered from depression,” Landsberg said. “I said to him I’d like to ask about it on air. He said ‘okay’.
During their conversation, Landsberg recounted, Richer said that when he “played hockey, I didn’t enjoy a single second…Five days after winning the Stanley Cup,” Richer said, “I wanted to end my life.”
Landsberg said that he was used to receiving many emails following any particular broadcast of “Off the Record”, but the reaction he received subsequent to his interview with Richer really floored him,
“I had 21 emails – from men, all saying much the same thing: ‘For the first time in my life I heard two men talking about their depression – that changed my life.’ These people embraced the stigma.”
Landsberg said he wrote back to each and everyone of those emailers, saying, “Now that you’ve reached out to one person, you can get help. You’ve got nothing to lose by getting treatment.”
But it was one email in particular that forever changed Landsberg’s life, he said. That email told how this one viewer had watched the show and had sent Landsberg an email in response.
Landsberg replied to that emailer almost immediately, he said. Then he received a follow-up email. The individual who had written him said that, following his sending that initial email, he had actually tied a cord around his neck and was preparing to hang himself. He heard the ping on his computer telling him there was another email. He went to check the email and saw that Landsberg had responded yet again to his email.
The guy, however, “went back to finish the job”, Landsberg continued, when he heard the ping on his computer yet again – this time with yet one more email from Landsberg.
“The next day he went for help,” Landsberg explained. “Six months later he was 100% better.”
The guy’s name, it turns out, was Tyson Williams; he came from a small town in Saskatchewan. A year after exchanging those initial emails, Landsberg said, he received another one from Williams, this one with a picture of a newborn baby attached. Landsberg said: “This is what happens when you share.”
There’s even more to the story. “Five months ago, Tyson Williams asked me to be the best man at his wedding.” (Landsberg agreed.)
What is the lesson in this? “The poison inside me I can use as someone else’s poison,” he observed.
But, “what does depression feel like?” Landsberg asked rhetorically.
“It’s the inability to experience joy,” he answered.
“You can get a cheque for $2 million and it brings you no joy.”
Turning to another aspect of depression – the situation of “caregivers’, who are living with someone suffering from depression, Landsberg had this to say: “So many of us, in the course of our lives, are going to be caregivers. There will be a barrier between us and that person because doing something for that person will not make them feel better.”
It’s just “wishful thinking” to suggest that doing something for someone suffering from depression will help, he noted. “It really makes depressed people mad because it demeans the illness.”
“The only way to beat that,” Landsberg continued, “is to say to them (the depressed person), ‘I don’t understand what you’re feeling; you need to tell me what I can do for you.”
Saying that can help to “lessen the guilt” of the depressed person, Landsberg said. “People become miserable around me because I’m miserable.”
He gave this example of how someone can help a depressed person feel less guilt: You can say you know that “you (the depressed person) just want to get up from the dinner table and go to bed.”
“Sometimes,” Landsberg admitted, the way he comes across in public, “I make things seem easy, but I can’t solve your problem; I can just make it a little bit easier.”
Following Landsberg's talk, he fielded questions from the audience. Here is a sampling of the back and forth that took place between Landsberg and various audience menmbers:
Questioner: How can I lessen the guilt of someone who is depressed?
Landsberg: “It’s an acknowledgement that who I was is gone and the person I am is someone I don't want to be.” You can say to the depressed person ‘The only thing I want is for you to be comfortable and feel better.”
Landsberg went on to describe how he feels when he’s depressed: “Depression for me is this little tap; it’s not like getting hit on the head…It’s like taking a bath – it starts off nice and warm, then you realize it’s not so warm any more.”
At that point Landsberg went on to explain what his organization known as “SICKnotweak” is trying to do. He asked members of the audience, “How many of you are anti-Semitic?” (You can guess how many put up their hands.)
He then asked, “How many of you think mental illness is a stigma?” Still no hands up.
But then, Landsberg said, asking that question of an audience is the same as asking an audience of high school students, “How many of you are bullies?” No one, he said, would put up their hands. In the same way, he suggested, people aren’t honest when it comes to revealing their true attitudes about mental illness.
“The stigma is somehow that it’s self-inflicted,” Landsberg claimed, “People say: ‘We know you’re suffering, but sometimes you should just sit back and count your blessings.”
Questioner: What is a “nervous breakdown?”
Landsberg turned to Dr. Michelle Warren and asked her to offer an answer. She said “It means being really overwhelmed.”
Questioner: “You speak of depression in binary terms, but the range of depression is vast.”
Landsberg: “There’s a real difference between severe depression and mild to moderate depression.
“I’m not an advocate for medication, but I’m an advocate for saying ‘I’ll do anything that works.’ I’ve been on and off medication five times. If that doesn’t make me stupid, what does?”
A questioner said she was 14 years old and had been suffering from depression since she was 12.
Landsberg asked her whether she was diagnosed when she was 12. She said she had been. He asked her “whether hearing the diagnosis made her feel better?” She said it did.
Another questioner said they hated the term “mental illness”.
Landsberg agreed. He said that he had a friend who had Parkinson’s Disease. “He has a brain disease,” Landsberg observed. “How come he has a brain disease and I have a mental illness?”
Questioner: “Where in this spectrum do anxiety and panic fit?”
Landsberg: “Anxiety, panic and depression are all symptoms of the same ‘mixed-upedness.’ Dr. Michelle Warren added: “Anxiety and depression hold hands; they have the same negative aspect beneath them.”
Questioner: “I don’t like the term ‘mood disorder’.”
Landsberg: “I agree…In many doctors’ minds a psychiatric emergency doesn’t exist. The stigma (attached to mood disorders) is greatest in doctors’ offices.”
Michelle Warren commented: “Maybe physical symptoms are easier to treat.”
Landsberg: “That’s unacceptable. I would contend that if someone comes in with a severe depression they should be treated the same as someone who presents with physical symptoms.”
Questioner: “My husband has severe depression. Any advice when that person isn’t ready to be public (with their disease)?”
Landsberg: “Unspoken things in a marriage are so damaging, but to be honest, there’s no easy way to do it. My biggest struggles are always at family gatherings. This Rosh Hashanah, as we were driving up to my wife’s family’s house, I was flashing back to all the times I went and hid in a bathroom…Depression is the anti-social illness.”
Questioner: “What other strategies do you use?
Landsberg to the questioner: “What do you do?”
Questioner: “Peer support is very important. I’ve met other people in doctors’ offices who offer a lot of support.”
Landsberg was asked if he’s aware of any “triggers” that can set off his depression. He answered: “I’ve never learned ‘triggers’. All that I know is that alcohol is no good for me…What I learned is not to magnify my illness, to learn to say that just because I’m having a bad day, it doesn’t mean tomorrow is going to be bad. I have to remind myself of the good days – understand that when I’m struggling, it does go away…I have to manage my own fears and expectations.”
A psychotherapist in the audience (who said she herself suffers from depression) offered this advice: “You might not be able to fix someone, but you can be there with them. When I’m down and out I just want someone to sit beside me and share the sadness with me. Accept the person for what they are and who they are. You can be with someone who’s sad and not make them happy.”
Landsberg added: “One of the most devastating things about this illness is ‘wishful thinking’…for example, saying to someone who’s depressed: ‘We should go out to a movie.’ ”An audience member said she had had cancer and suffers from depression. “I’ve been on every medication there is. This is worse than my cancer. At least then I saw light at the end of the tunnel.”
Questioner: “Why doesn’t emotion get mentioned?”
Landsberg: “Sadness is something you don’t experience.” Michelle Warren added: “The term that applies more is ‘numbness’.”
Questioner: “What is the relationship between alcohol and mental illness?”
Landsberg: “Alcohol makes me feel two steps better, then later – five steps worse.”
Questioner: “What conversation have you had with your children?”
Landsberg: “We have to desensitize people to the whole subject of mental illness. In my house it’s not a big deal.” Landsberg told the story of a professional hockey player whose daughter had suicided. That player told me: “We talked about everything in our house except mental illness.”
“Four thousand people a year commit suicide in Canada,” Landsberg noted. “But, for every person who attempts suicide, ten more consider it.”
Finally, and perhaps most astonishing, a man said he had been a soldier in the Canadian Armed Forces. Of the 15 members of his unit, 13 had committed suicide (since returning from Afghanistan).