Q&A: Michael Landsberg goes on the record about mental health, power of social media

CBC Metro Morning host Matt Galloway sits down with Michael Landsberg to discuss his online movement #SickNotWeak

'Is anybody else here on Prozac?' Former Off The Record host speaks about depression

Michael Landsberg sits down with CBC Metro Morning's Matt Galloway to discuss his online movement, #SickNotWeak. (CBC News)

Canadian sports journalist Michael Landsberg sat down with CBC's Metro Morning host Matt Galloway on Monday to discuss #SickNotWeak, his online movement, and his battles with depression.

Landsberg explained how authenticity on social media can transform people's lives.

A documentary filmmaker, Landsberg started using the hashtag #SickNotWeak on Twitter in 2009 to encourage talk about mental health. Over the years, the hashtag grew in popularity, drawing celebrity sports figures into the conversation.

Nearly a decade later, Landsberg has joined forces with Facebook Canada to launch SickNotWeak as an online community for people with mental illness. He says the social media platform is a major force in the fight against stigma.

When did you realize that you had depression?

About the year 2000. It was about the second or third year of Off the Record, the show that I was hosting, and I realized that who I was had disappeared. It was this crazy realization because I kind of noticed tiny little things happening. Depression, in particular, doesn't hit you like wham, all of a sudden you go: "Oh my gosh, I'm depressed."

It's kind of a tiny, tiny tap and this tapped me over and over, again. You can't feel it when it taps you, but when it taps you a thousand times, all of a sudden you start to go: "Wow, something has changed here." And for me, it was this epiphany where I went: "Oh my gosh, what happened to me?" Who I was is gone and who I am, I don't want to be. 

When did you feel comfortable speaking openly about that?

One of the reasons why I think this is really easy for me is that I never ever thought, oh my gosh, I could never tell people. I was at work, talking about this from the first day. And when I finally got to see a doctor, and I got a prescription, I was like so proud of myself. I went to work and was like, "Oh my God, I'm on Prozac. Is anybody else here on Prozac?" And they all kind of looked at me weird, like if they were on Prozac and they didn't want to put up their hand up, so I was never bothered by that concept at all.

When were you comfortable talking about it on television?

I would have been comfortable all along, to be honest with you, but I always thought if I talk about this on television, people would not only think, "Is he arrogant?," which I know they thought, but they're going to think that I'm a whiner, a complainer looking for sympathy, which I never did until 2009 when I came off the worst year of my life in 2008. 

I mean I was so deep in the dark hole of depression that I could remember that in 2008, November 24, we were doing Off the Record at the Grey Cup, and it was a Tuesday night, 4 a.m. in the morning. I was sitting on the edge of my bed thinking to myself, I know why people take their lives because I was in so much pain that I was aware that there was a finite amount of time that I could continue like that. And I was not a threat to myself because I've been through it before and I knew that there was a possibility of help, but that sense of hopelessness, that sense of loneliness, if I hadn't been through it before would have devastated me, and maybe would have killed me.

So in 2008, I was struggling horribly, and by 2009, a year later, I'm feeling — I'll never be better, but I was functional, I was able to in some semblance of a way to be me. I was interviewing [former NHL player] Stephane Richer — any Habs fans here?

'I struggled too'

The only reason why I'm on this stage here talking to you, Matt, at this great conference, is because I said to him in the green room: "Stephane, you don't know me and you don't owe me anything and I know that you struggled with depression in the 1990s. This is just one article that I read, I said, 'Would it be okay if I ask you how you're doing?' and he said, 'I don't know, it's painful.' I go, 'It's okay.' And I mention that I said that I too have struggled. He said, 'You?' and I told him a bit about me and he said okay. We went on the air and we talked for about a minute, maybe a minute and I said:  'How you are you doing?' He said: 'I'm doing a lot better.' And I said: 'I struggled too.'

This story has a million twists and turns and I'll only tell you the result of the story was 22 emails to me. Twenty-two of them from men saying the same thing, that for the first time in their lives they've seen two people, two men, talking about their struggles with mental illness without shame and embarrassment and without seeming weak, and because of that,they were sharing with me. The first time they're telling anyone, it's with me in this email, and that's what changed my life. That was the first time I shared.

That is important because it shows you the potential of what happens when you speak publicly. In that moment, what did you have the power to do?

That's exactly the right way to say it: the power, and it was the power that I never realized I had. And it's power that we all have. This is not just me saying: "Hey look what I did, look what I can do." Anybody can do this. I had a couple of things going for me.

  • To really do what it is I do, what it is we do, you have to have suffered from the illness. I have no credibility, no currency to trade on to say this is how I feel and have people go me too as well, so that's the first thing. I had the illness.
  • I was more than willing to share.
  • I had spent all my life learning how to talk about my own feelings.
  • I had platforms available to me because of TSN and because of Bell, so I had all of those things going for me.

So that's the only thing that makes me unique are those possibilities, but anyone with this story could share their story. For me, it was like a holy shit moment. So I had this moment where I found out two and a half years later that somebody who communicated with me after the Stephane Richer interview sent me an email.

'A couple of guys shared'

And the email said: "Hey, Michael you don't remember me, Tyson Wilson from North Battleford, Sask. Two and a half years ago, you and Stephane Richer talked about your struggles with depression. I messaged you and you messaged me back and we went back and forth five times. But what I didn't tell you was that I had a belt on a hook in my closet, I never told you what was going on. I never told you I was suicidal. I just told you that I didn't think that there was hope for me." The last thing I said to him was: "'What do you have to lose?' to go for help.

And he said: "That changed my life because here I am, two and a half years later, able to communicate this, able to celebrate my life." He said: "Imagine, I had written a note to my daughter saying that this is why I ended my life."

This is the power of depression. This is the power of the voice of depression — a parent thinking, my kid would be better off without me. I mean no rational brain would think that. He said: "That's because a couple of guys shared."

And that was the lesson. And by the way, this story is amazing because last September the 2nd, I was the best man at Tyson Wilson from North Battleford, Saskatchewan's wedding. How cool is that?

What has social media allowed you to do to harness that power?

I had never tweeted, but then, three summers ago, I was in Normandy. I'm a World War II buff, and this was like the Holy Land for me. I was there and I tweeted out: "Hey I'm going to Bény-sur-Mer, the Canadian war cemetery in Normandy the next day."

I said: "I don't know anyone who's buried there. If there's anyone who you would like me to pay respects to, I'd be thrilled to do it." And I got some responses, and I thought this is kind of weird. I'm getting responses from people that I didn't know. And I was like: "Hello, this is social media."

But then I tweeted out: "Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I'm struggling a little bit today with my depression, and is anyone else struggling?"

And that totally changed my life. Everyday since then, I've been on Twitter, in particular, sharing my own ups, my own downs, my own feelings, the depth of the pain, but also the successes. And people relate to that because they know it's them, and I hear all the time:"That's me."