Nfld. & Labrador

Depression is no picnic for teddy bear man Terry Rielly

The man behind the long-running St. John's Teddy Bear Picnic is opening up about his private battle with mental illness.

Musician says holiday season especially tough for those with mental illness

The self-proclaimed teddy bear man is opening up about his long-running battle with depression. (Anthony Germain/CBC)

The man behind the long-running St. John's Teddy Bear Picnic is opening up about his private battle with mental illness — and its stark contrast to his bubbly, public persona. 

I'm the teddy bear man, how can I be sad?- Terry Rielly

"I guess I realized it many, many years ago," Terry Rielly said in an interview with The St. John's Morning Show

Despite being on medication and regularly seeing a psychiatrist, the musician said things got "really dark" about 15 years ago. That's when he sought help from his family doctor. 

"She said, 'You probably have clinical depression.' And I said, 'Who me? I'm the teddy bear man, how can I be sad?'"

Rielly, shown performing at the St. John's Teddy Bear Picnic in July, says he once admitted himself to the Waterford Hospital for treatment for depression. (Brian Carey)

Rielly said his darkest period came when he began having thoughts of suicide: "I was getting to the point where I was starting to plan how I might [die]."

Rielly later shared these thoughts with a psychiatrist who suggested he admit himself to the Waterford Hospital in St. John's for treatment. 

There was no fresh air in my room – there were bars on it.- Terry Rielly

"I'm really glad I did it [but] it was a horrible experience on one level. Personally, it was terrible."

The musician said he was put under close observation, and was under strict restrictions during his time in hospital.

"I wasn't able to step on the outside step to breathe fresh air, there was no fresh air in my room – there were bars on it – I couldn't even go to the chapel on Sunday for the worship service," he said. 

"The system is so fraught with inadequacies and terrible procedures … I learned how awful it was for people with much more severe mental health issues than me."

Inside the Waterford

Rielly believes there is too much stigma attached to the Waterford Hospital and said the building should be torn down. 

This is what a hallway at the Waterford Hospital looked like in the 1990s. Built in 1855, Rielly believes the building should be torn down and rebuilt. (CBC)

Even its colour schemes, he said, are depressing.

"Pea soup green [walls] … there's very little art, very little things that express happiness."

"I hate to be crass but what kind of money does the government get from mental health consumers and their families? Probably very little," Rielly said.

"The people who end up having to spend time inside that awful building, they don't have a voice."

After spending four days in hospital, Rielly said he was relieved to leave. 

"I think they were glad to see me go. I had a list of recommendations for changes," he recalled. 

'Thank God for the children'

The musician has been estranged from his elderly mother for more than a decade, and said that makes the holiday season especially difficult. 

What gets him through the difficult times, he said, is performing. 

Rielly has performed for children across Newfoundland and Labrador for more than 30 years. (Submitted by Terry Rielly)

"Thank God for the children I perform for and with. I go to a Christmas party and it's like, 'This is the joy of Christmas, right here in front of me.' And I feel very, very, very blessed and fortunate that I have that."

Rielly said he wants people to know that depression can happen to anyone.

"It can happen to who you might think is the happiest person in the world," he said. 

"I have every reason in the universe to be extremely happy, know how blessed I am, know how many fans and friends that I have because of being the teddy bear man. And it can still happen."

With files from the St. John's Morning Show