Labour Minister Lisa Raitt helped open an international mental health conference today by sharing her experience with postpartum depression and encouraging employers to be more supportive of workers with mental health problems.

Raitt had postpartum depression in 2004 while she was president and chief executive officer of the Toronto Port Authority and while she recognized her symptoms and sought help from her doctor, she was afraid to tell her employer.

"I didn't tell because I was very concerned about being sent home, not being able to go to work and all of those things that are associated with stigma," she told the packed room at an Ottawa hotel.

The three-day conference — one of the largest ever to focus on stigma and mental illness — is organized by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, which recently released its landmark national strategy. Actress Glenn Close delivered a keynote speech after Raitt and talked about mental illness in her own family and in the characters she's played.

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Actress Glenn Close spoke Monday at an international mental conference in Ottawa. She was joined by her sister and nephew who both have mental illnesses. (Jason DeCrow/Associated Press)

Close's sister, Jessie Close, has bipolar disorder and her nephew Calen has schizoaffective disorder and both addressed the conference.

The Hollywood celebrity said she decided to use her name to help eradicate the stigma, prejudice and discrimination that had affected her family.  

"Little did I know that it is the last — perhaps most challenging — civil and human rights issue of our time," Close said.

Close talked about how her character in the movie Fatal Attraction, Alex Forrest, ended up perpetrating the stereotype that mentally ill people are violent and terrifying. Close said she developed a deep empathy for her character, who was in pain and needed help. 

The original screenplay had Forrest kill herself but test audiences felt that kind of death wasn't a sufficient punishment and it was re-written so that she was made into a terrifying, psychopathic female slasher with a knife, Close said. She fought for the original ending, but lost, and "bunny-boiler" became part of society's lexicon.

Close admitted that when she decided to become a mental health advocate she wondered if it would affect her career, but she knew that being afraid of the impact was "unacceptable."

Raitt told reporters later that hearing from Close and her sister and nephew was an amazing experience.

The MP for Halton said like most expecting mothers, she had read about postpartum depression in books but when she broke down in tears driving home from work one day, she knew it was happening to her. Raitt called her doctor immediately and made an appointment.

National standards in the works

She found the right combination of medication and therapy but Raitt said that it can take years to overcome the illness. She said she still monitors her health closely.

"I got sick and I got better and I want to make sure that other people have the ability to have the tools to get better," she said. "I'm a little ashamed that I didn't tell my employer then and I think the lessons learned from that is people shouldn't be afraid and they should be able to approach their employers and I encourage it."

Raitt said her department is working on implementing recommendations in the Mental Health Commission's national strategy, which include developing national mental health standards for workplaces. There is also work being done by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety to help small and independent businesses support their employees.

The labour minister said talking about mental health in the workplace is one of her priorities as labour minister. She is motivated by the business case for having healthy employees because mental illness can cause absenteeism and lost productivity, but also by her own experience, Raitt said.

Her main message is that it is OK to talk about mental health problems at work, she said, and that psychological injuries need to be given the same attention as physical ones.

"What I hope is that employers realize that it is in the workplace. Psychological health is as important and if someone comes to you with these issues you have to be accommodating and you have to help them," she said.

Employers need help to understand how to help their workers, Raitt said, and employees also need to know about the services that are available to them.

She encouraged anyone who is struggling to reach out for help and to talk to a health professional as well as speaking with a supervisor at work. Raitt also encouraged parents to talk openly about mental health with their children.