Michael Landsberg, TSN legend and founder of the #SickNotWeak Foundation, opens up about his experience with depression and offers his advice for those living with mental illness, urging everyone to ask themselves: “Do I experience joy?”
Did you know that you wanted to be a TV personality from a young age?
I knew I wanted to but never thought I could do it. I was failing out of university and all my friends were going to go into medicine or dental school or accounting and I couldn’t do any of that . My attitude was: “I have no idea how I’m going to get a job or how I’m going to survive, but I may as well give it a shot because what’s my second choice?” (I didn’t have one.)
I think it’s amazing that you have used your platform to advocate for mental health awareness, when did you decide you wanted to do this? Was there a moment where you thought okay this is something that needs to be discussed?
Oh, there was no doubt a moment. There was actually an exact moment, but I shouldn’t say moment, it was a few moments combined. In 2008, well… let me take a step back.
From 1997 to 2016 – I hosted a show called Off the Record – I started to really battle severe depression around 1998. I had ups and down, meaning I was on medication and off medication– medication was a good answer for me. I know its not an answer for everyone, I’m not an advocate for medication, but for me it gave me my life back. Between 1998 and 2008, I went off medication I guess four times – and I relapsed every time.
Last time I relapsed was 2007-2008 – I was in bad shape. I was in this hole that made it impossible for me to experience anything like joy – any kind of joy – any tiny little bit of it – no. Everyday was a battle. To get out of bed, then my whole battle was to work through my day and get back into bed. That was the payoff for me. I ended up at the end of 2008 – being in a hotel room in Montreal, we were shooting off the record at the grey cup, and I was in my hotel room. I remember every detail of this because I talk about it a lot and its significant – I actually have it written on my arm.
October 24th 2008 – Montreal Marriott hotel – room 521 – 4 o’clock in the morning – I remember sitting at the edge of my bed and I knew why people take their own lives. It’s not that I was contemplating taking my life, because I had been through this before and I knew there was a chance I could get help BUT I understood it.
I ended up going back on meds and getting better. And in 2009, in October, we have a guest on Off the Record – Stefan Riche. He is a two-time Stanley Cup champion in the NHL and I had never met him before and I thought oh – I just read something – this is how life works, a sequence of coincidences right? – I had read something just before I left my desk, that said Stefan Riche suffered depression in the 1990’s. So I go oh, that would be an interesting question, which might expose more of a human being, which is what television does a really good job of doing, so I went into the green room and I said:
Stefan, come here for a sec, “look you don’t know me, I don’t know you BUT I would like to ask you if it’s okay to ask how you’re doing with depression?”
And he said “well.. its painful for me to talk about” and I said “I don’t want to cause you any pain, but if you’ll talk about it I’ll talk about it” He said: “What do you mean?”
So I told him my story, that I had battled for 10 years and especially the past year had been a terrible year for me and that I would share it just like him.
He said “Okay let’s do it.”
We talked for two minutes on the air, he told a bit of his story – winning the Stanley Cup and wanting to go home and get into bed. He talked about winning the Stanley Cup in New Jersey and driving back to Montreal and attempting suicide. It was like oh my gosh, I didn’t know any of that. Though my story doesn’t have your traumatic turns, my story really is very similar in that you couldn’t feel joy from winning the Stanley Cup and I couldn’t feel joy from things in my life that should’ve brought me joy.
What changed my life then, was the next day. I remember getting messages. 22 of them. 20 of them from men and all of them really saying the same thing. “Hey Michael, I watched you and Stefan Riche yesterday and it was the first time in my life I really saw men speaking about their depression and the fact that you didn’t seem to be ashamed or embarrassed, or the fact that you didn’t seem to be weak. It inspired me to tell you that I too suffer, and you are the first human being that I have ever told that to.”
And its like: oh my gosh. Wow. I would’ve spoken about it ten years before. I never cared who knew, I wasn’t ashamed, I just thought that no one would care. So here I was, finding that I had this valuable thing inside me that took absolutely no effort or courage to get out of me. That was in October of 2009. If we go from then to 2011 let’s say, there’s not a day that has gone by that I haven’t spoken about mental health.
The title #SickNotWeak is such a powerful name. What can Canadians do to reduce the stigma associated with mental health?
I really truly believe that if we could ever embrace the concept that mental illness is a sickness instead of a weakness, we could overcome the stigma. Right now, people often see depression as being self-inflicted, that those suffering from it weren’t strong enough to overcome it. I call it “healthy-brainitis,” meaning that the healthy brain thinks that it’s gone through all the same things that the depressed brain did, but it was strong enough to get through.
One of things that I can do is to talk about my mental illness in a way that’s everything but weak because I know my illness isn’t a weakness — I know I didn’t choose this, I know I can’t will it away, I know that I can’t suck it up. But the perception that somehow mental illnesses are a reflection of personal weakness, that strong people can “just get over it” — that’s incredibly damaging, especially to the person suffering from mental illness.
What tips do you have for readers who want to improve their mental health?
First — and this is going to sound kind of basic — there are a lot of Canadians that have no idea that they’re sick. Because mental illness typically doesn’t hit us overnight, these can be tiny changes to who we are. Take inventory of yourself, especially throughout the pandemic. Ask yourself, “One year ago when things were normal — how did I experience life back then? What was my ability to experience joy like?”
I call this the basic joy test: what’s one thing in your life that brings you simple little joys? For me it’s my first sip of coffee in the morning. I can ask myself, I enjoyed this a year ago — but do I still enjoy it? And if I don’t, it’s a sign that I need to address what’s going on, because the loss of that ability to experience joy is universal.