Bob Rae opens up on depression, mental health
Tonight, the Liberals' interim leader, Bob Rae, is due to receive an award from the Canadian Mental Health Association for his efforts to open up public debate on issues such as depression and suicide. This is an issue that has seen Canadian politicians at their best, actually. Stephen Harper's moving speech at Dave Batters' funeral is also an example of the eloquence that can transcend partisanship.
Rae isn't able to attend the ceremony tonight, because the Commons is voting on the gun-registry bill, so his wife, Arlene, will be reading the speech for him. It's quite the speech; one could also see it as a continuation of sorts to Rick Mercer's efforts of last week to get prominent people using their public pulpits to avert youth suicide. (In Rick's case, the efforts were directed at homosexual young people. Rae's speech doesn't have a specific demographic target.)
Rae also has circulated the speech to the Star and Globe, and I've just decided to reprint it here. Here you go:
I am very proud to be honoured by the Mental Health Association with a Public Service Award.
Since I was told I was receiving this award, a grand-daughter of dear friends took an overdose, I visited the family of a 15 year old who killed himself, and have received countless messages from people who have either suffered from mental illness themselves or who are struggling with how to care for loved ones or friends. Just last week I met with a soldier who had been in Afghanistan and described in compelling terms how many of his colleagues were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
At the age of 24, I woke up one morning with a deep sense of anxiety and depression that was debilitating for the better part of a year. At times I could scarcely get moving through the day, and found talking to anyone difficult. I was paralysed by self doubt, cold sweats, and no reassurances of, friends and family could convince me that I had much self worth or hope for the future. Some friends trying to be helpful said "shake it off, you've got everything going for you". As well meaning as that advice was, it ignored the simple fact that I was struggling with an illness.
I took the "talking cure", and slowly began making decisions which allowed me to get back on my feet. I had the benefit of good friends who insisted I seek help. I had the support of a family that, while taken aback by my description of what was happening, gave me the love and support to find my way. I realise now how incredibly important those two things were.
As I began to deal with the challenge I was facing, I slowly began making decisions that would help me get better. The first was to go and work in a housing and legal aid centre, to confront my anxiety directly by engaging with other people. I can remember helping a distraught mother of two whose life had fallen apart and realising that I could show normal compassion and help make a difference in someone's life. The second was to go and see as many funny movies and shows as I possibly could. Even today, my family are embarrassed by how quickly I am moved to tears, and how much I love to laugh, and laugh so hard I start to cry.
I was a student of political philosophy at the time, and a kind teacher urged me to get help, and to read John Stuart Mill's autobiography, which I dutifully did. Mill had grown up as a "thinking machine", and suffered a mental breakdown when he came to realise that there was no love, laughter, music, or beauty in his life. His recovery took a long time, but he went on to become a giant of political and economic thought.
Mill described his breakdown in this way :
"I seemed to have nothing left to live for. At first I hoped the cloud would pass away of itself; but it did not. I carried it with me into all companies, into all occupations. In vain I sought relief from my favourite books....Advice, if I had known where to seek it, would have been most precious.
The fountains of vanity and ambition seemed to have dried up within me. Neither selfish nor unselfish pleasures were pleasures to me. Two lines of Coleridge were often in my thoughts, not at this time but in a later period of the same mental malady. Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve. And hope without an object cannot live.
I frequently asked myself if I could, or if I was bound to go on living, when life must be passed in this manner. I generally answered to myself, that I did not think I could possibly bear it beyond a year."
Science and understanding the mind and emotions has advanced much in the nearly two hundred years since Mill's breakdown. Technically speaking, there are indeed no cures yet - but there is much we can do to put symptoms on the back burner, to improve people's ability to work and have strong relationships and to minimize the intrusion of illness.
Politics is a life that allows me to help people in practical ways, do the thinking I have to do, and provide whatever leadership and inspiration I can. My life is very full. I'm not John Stuart Mill but I have been a very lucky man.
Several things happened as a result of my living through a mental illness. The first was that I quickly realised how many others went through similar experiences. The second was that I realised the darkness and anxiety can clear. I have had moments - in particular the time when my late brother David died - when I have felt great sadness, but it was nothing like the earlier experience. Don't let anyone tell you that, with the right help, people can't get better.
I have tried in my political life to open people up to the realities of mental illness. Whether in opposition or government, I have done what I could to help people understand that treatment must be improved, that access to prompt and effective care must be ensured, and that above all we have to bring this issue out of the shadows. I have been helped along the way by many people who have insisted that there was much more to be done. Dan Offord was a mentor of mine, a pioneer in child psychiatry who also ran Christie Lake camp. He kept pushing me to understand that early identification of the signs of mental illness in kids can take us a long way. I know we still have such a long way to go to achieve his dream.
My friend and political colleague David Reville was a pioneer in empowering the clients of the mental health system, and many of the changes we now see in respecting the lived experience of people struggling with illness every day is because of David and many thousands like him.
And my good friend Dr David Goldbloom has been a consistent source of good humoured advice that has helped me to see the big picture of what can be done.
The debates and discussions around this issue have changed substantially, and positively, since I entered public life over thirty years ago. But we still have a long way to go.
Mental illness is not about being sad. While the stigma in public opinion has diminished, it has not disappeared. Treatments have improved dramatically, but individuals and families still face the worlds of autism, depression, schizophrenia, and a wide range of disorders without the deep assurance that in every instance "we know what causes it and we know how to make it better." But more people are recovering, and better treatments are being found every day.
The recent debate in the House of Commons on the need for a national suicide strategy was an eye-opening experience for all of us. Members came forward and shared their own experiences, there was no name calling, partisan chippiness or the usual antics that go with a House debate. There was a sense that we are all in this together.
So that was progress. The next step is to match the words with even more deeds. There is a desperate shortage of help out there, and families with children all too often feel they are on their own. It will take a greater commitment of dollars and resources to make things happen, and that's harder to do in tough times. But it can and must be done.
The problems won't go away on their own. My grandmother Nell had a wonderful expression whenever she encountered a mountain of a problem. "Take the human footsteps". That's what we can and must do.