Bob Rae: I was in the throes of depression
Sandie Benitah, cp24.com
Published Friday, February 10, 2012 11:47AM EST
Bob Rae appears to be a man who has held a firm grip on life since he first entered the world 63 years ago.
Privileged since birth, Rae has benefited from the finest education, has made the best of countless opportunities and has yielded incredible influence among his peers.
But, as Rae discovered in his 24th year, depression is blind to success, ignores privilege and attacks the best and brightest among us.
Rae is best known for his political feats, first as NDP premier of Ontario and now as interim leader of the Liberal Party. Before entering politics he was still a mighty force, impressive as a young Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and effective as a lawyer and activist fighting for social change.
But for about 18 months during his twenties, Rae's friends and family were in the presence of a different man. Instead of the easygoing entertainer and masterful debater his peers had come to know, Rae became a young man paralyzed with self-doubt, anxiety and a fear of failure.
"Sometimes depression is circumstantial or environmental but more than that, it's stirred by something inside of you," he explained during a Sunday afternoon chat at his quiet Rosedale home.
"Looking back it's hard to recreate," he added. "It was more than just a regular uneasiness. It was hard to connect to other people."
A deep depression indeed overtook Rae's life. It stopped him from socializing and from writing and gave him strong anxiety attacks. But today, Rae looks back at that time as an arduous moment in his life that showed him the only way out was by reaching out.
Rae first detailed his bout with depression publicly in his book "From Protest to Power" which was first released in 1996.
He didn't spend a lot of time in the book focusing on this chapter of his life, summarizing his experience in less than two pages. But what he did say was a candid reflection of a palpable dark time in his life.
"I have rarely felt such utter loneliness and anxiety as I felt in that fall of 1972," Rae writes in the book. "Conversation was an effort; I couldn't read or write without feeling completely inadequate; my self-esteem was at zero and several days would sometimes go by without my being able to do anything remotely constructive."
Rae said he was never given medication to deal with his anxiety and depression. Instead, he survived the episode with "talk treatment," talking several times a week with someone about the demons he was dealing with.
"I would talk and he would listen," Rae explains in the book. "I felt embarrassed to be there, and yet I knew I needed help. I couldn't write, I couldn't sleep, I was stuck."
Today, Rae speaks with relative ease about that time in his life. He explained how he stopped working on his thesis, completed his Masters in philosophy, took a break and then moved in with long-time pal and eventual political rival Michael Ignatieff.
"He was really good to me," he said, while sitting back comfortably on his living room couch.
Severe stigma has been attached to mental illness for generations but when asked if he had ever felt stigmatized, Rae said he fell victim to his own sense of self perception.
"I felt embarrassed by it. I felt it was difficult to go into social situation. You can't wear it on your sleeve," he said. "What was I supposed to do if I went to a party and started talking to someone? Say ‘I'm sorry I can't help you, I'm not able to respond?'"
Despite his own struggle to accept himself, Rae says that reaching out during his depression and talking about his experience years afterwards came somewhat easily to him. He was blessed with family and friends and even professors who were understanding and non-judgemental about what he was going through.
"They were surprised and a bit bewildered because it wasn't in the cards, so to speak," he said. "But everyone was really good about it. I was very lucky that way."
He was lucky in other ways too. Suicidal thoughts often accompany deep depressions but Rae said he never seriously contemplated killing himself, even in his darkest moments.
"No, not seriously to the point where I thought of how I'd do it," he said, looking me right in the eye.
He looked away however when he was asked if he still suffers from depression today and took a brief moment before he answered.
"Never to the same extent, never to the same depth, but as a young man I became aware. I became aware of the signs and it's about not letting situations do that to you. There are ways to cope with that."
Lending a voice
One of the ways he coped with depression was by reaching out to others. In fact, he credited his time as a volunteer with a legal aid centre in London, England as a key factor to his gradual recovery.
"I soon realized that the best and most practical therapy was for me to simply listen, learn and then do my best to help. In helping others, I helped myself. The way to break out of isolation is to break out of isolation, one step at a time," Rae says in his book before quoting his grandmother Nell. "Take the human footsteps."
Rae went on to become a strong advocate for marginalized communities and fought hard for socially progressive changes during his time as premier in the 1980s. In the years since then, Rae has added his voice to many discussions about mental health.
In October 2011 under Rae's leadership, the Liberal government dedicated their opposition day in the House of Commons to talk about Canadians' mental health and to call for a national suicide prevention strategy.
In Canada, the most recent statistics show that 3,600 people from all walks of life end their own life each year. That's about 10 suicides a day – a rate that is slightly higher than the U.S. Furthermore, for every suicide, experts predict that there are about 20 to 25 suicide attempts made.
The Conservative government for its part has created the Mental Health Commission, a group dedicated to promoting positive mental health in Canada and working with stakeholders to help improve the attitudes and perceptions around mental illness.
Rae said he believes the issue of mental health needs to be taken seriously by all stakeholders.
While the Mental Health Commission is an important step, the response to Canada's mental health crisis has to go beyond the federal government to the provincial government – the body responsible for delivering the services that help people cope with the disease.
"It's hard to relocate dollars in health care," he said pointing to a vastly under-resourced system and a shaky global economy.
With mental health it's especially tricky, especially because of polarizing public opinion, he said. There are still some people who believe that depression is something that can be "shaken off" and that isn't worth the few healthcare dollars that are available. There are others who believe depression and other forms of mental illness are chronic diseases that offer no hope of recovery, no matter how much money is invested into treatments.
"They see it as a bottomless pit for funds with no end in sight for how much money is needed to spend on it," Rae said.
But Rae said there is real hope for advancement, especially when the public gets involved. Advocating for resources, raising private funds and lobbying for legislative changes helps keep issues like mental health on the radar of local politicians looking for support from the electorate.
Like all experts in the mental health industry, Rae points to the education system as the start for real change.
"It's just so critical that everyone understands…teachers, police officers, social workers…they are all on the front lines," he said. "A teacher can identify as soon as a kid comes into school if that kid is going to have behavioural issues. If we are able to identify issues early on, then we might be more successful in stopping (a mental illness) from emerging."
But most importantly, the biggest change needs to take place within ourselves, he said.
"You have to look after people, take care of people and watch out for how they're doing," he said. "It's about every day allowing people to not be a performer."
As for those who suffer from debilitating mental illnesses, he shared advice he learned from his own experience.
"Don't keep it a secret, share it and get as much help as you can," he said. "The experience of an awful lot of people is that you can recover from depression and other forms of mental illness. We need to remember we live in better times and we've made a lot of progress."