By Perry Lefko

As one of the pre-eminent figures in raising awareness about mental health in Canada, Michael Landsberg is looking forward to the annual Bell Let’s Talk Day.

The high-profile sports broadcaster, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a teen, has tried to erase the stigma of mental illness, which affects one in five Canadians by talking about his own battle. Landsberg will once again be featured in Bell Canada’s multi-media commercials and billboards promoting the annual event, which takes place in 2019 on Jan. 30. The campaign has been helping to raise awareness and providing funds to support programs dealing with the disease by encouraging people to use the hashtag #bellletstalk on social media platforms. Bell donates five cents for every tweet and social media share. Last year almost $7 million was raised through almost 140 million messages of support.

Landsberg has created his own personal mission to broaden discussion about mental health with his website Sick Not Weak and his not-for-profit organization of the same name. It is creating a community that reduces the loneliness and hopelessness of both those who have mental health illnesses, and the people who care for them. Funds collected in support of Sick Not Weak help provide education, while supporting a community for those suffering as well as those supporting a loved one who needs help.

Landsberg has gone across Canada talking about his own struggles and helping others to become more comfortable about talking about their own battles. He’s done two seminars in the Peel Region within the past year. Last February, he did an event for Peel Region Police. He also spoke to a group at the Canada Border Services Agency at the International Centre in Mississauga. He said he has been told post traumatic stress disorder is a huge problem for first responders.

Bell aired Landsberg’s documentary, Darkness and Hope: Depression, Sports and Me, in 2012 as part of Let’s Talk Day. Landsberg, who co-hosts a morning sports talk show on TSN1050, said Bell’s participation in the program has helped immensely because of its multi-media platforms. But beyond that, Landsberg said the program has created traction because more and more people are either suffering from mental health issues or know someone who is struggling with it.

“I think people understand that what’s been missing is talk,” he said. “The one reason the stigma has thrived for so long is that people don’t talk when they feel shame, and the best way to feel less shame is to talk about it – to normalize it, to desensitize it. People understand that talking about it is a good thing.”

He added the Bell Let’s Talk campaign is breaking down barriers in the work place, all the way from corporate Canada down to the small business person.

“I think it’s been a great conversation starter for people to understand that mental health needs to not be perceived as a weakness but a sickness,” he said. “As long as mental health is in the closet and people aren’t talking about it, it will prevail that it’s a weakness.”

Some of the celebrities or high-profile people who have been part of the Bell campaign include Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes, comedian-actors Howie Mandel and Mary Walsh, singer Serena Ryder and Toronto Maple Leafs’ head coach Mike Babcock.

Landsberg mentioned how former Toronto Raptors’ star DeMar DeRozan created awareness when he talked openly about his depression struggles.

“For sure it normalizes it and has a huge impact on certain aspects of the population or certain groups,” Landsberg said. “Serena Ryder is not going to impact the same people that DeMar DeRozan will impact or that Clara Hughes will impact. Everyone has a demographic. We all have different reasons for fearing sharing our struggles with mental illness. Older people, especially men, fear being perceived as weak, like they’ve let down their family or have let down their gender almost.”

Landsberg said he hopes people become more involved in the discussion about mental health beyond just Bell Let’s Talk Day.

“On Jan. 30 there will be more talk about mental health than there has been since the last Bell Let’s Talk Day,” he said. “It would be great if people built on it. I can say that with a measure of pride because that is what we do. Bell has by far the largest megaphone that exists in talking about mental health and probably the most successful cause-related marketing in any country any time. It’s amazing how big this thing is. People can be critical of Bell saying it’s only one day a year, well nobody else is doing anything, so why would you criticize the one group that is doing it one day a year and making it into this big thing? It’s up to other people to follow that lead and to take the ball and run with it for the next 364 days, which is my goal and the goal of our charity.”

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