It was the first time he’d spoken to a farm audience and Michael Landsberg did not disappoint.
The crowd at Grain World gave the Canadian sports journalist a standing ovation after he’d given his frank talk about his personal struggle with depression, imploring others to speak up too.
“The agricultural world is dominated by the concept of strength,” he told his 400-plus audience. “Weakness is to be frowned upon. Weakness must never be shown. I’m here to hammer the point that mental illness, that depression and anxiety, are not weaknesses.”
Landsberg’s presentation was sponsored by the Manitoba Canola Growers Association (MCGA) and Canadian Canola Growers Association (CCGA).
Ending the stigma associated with mental health problems has been his mission for nearly a decade. Landsberg is well known for his brash on-air persona as TSN’s host of “Off the Record.” But as he told Grain World last week, that was one side of him; since 2000 he’s also been in the grip of anxiety and depression.
He’d reached his lowest point in 2008, on a morning when he couldn’t get out of bed and didn’t see any point in going on any longer.
“It was an education in why people end their lives,” he said. He’d kept that part of him private up to that point, with only those closest to him knowing how much he was suffering, and able to get treatment after that.
Then he began to speak publicly about his depression.
The first time was a year later when he and former Habs hockey player Stéphane Richer, who has also suffered severe depression, talked about it on his show, asking each other how they were doing now.
Their candid on-air conversation had immediate impact. Landsberg said he got 22 emails right away, all coming from men saying they’d never heard two guys talk openly about depression before.
They said it would make it easier for them to open up and look for help too, he said.
“This was where my life began to change massively,” he told Grain World.
After that he began talking about depression in other forums becoming an ambassador for the Bell Let’s Talk initiative, which encourages dialogue about mental health, in 2011.
In 2013 he released the widely-acclaimed documentary “Darkness and Hope: Depression, Sports and Me.” Today he remains actively engaged in mental health forums under his own Sick Not Weak initiative.
His message to his all-farmer audience last week was that they can help end the silence in the agricultural sector too.
It starts with stopping seeing any sort of mental health challenge as a personal weakness, he said.
“Your industry calls for strength,” he said. “In general you probably the strongest group of people that I have spoken to.
“But in that world, the perception of weakess is frowned upon. The key for me is convincing you that mental illness is not a weakness. Because once you stop seeing it that way then you will go for help and then you will have a better understanding of other people (who need help).”
“I suffer from depression…. depression and anxiety have left me wondering if I could possibly survive this illness,” he said. “But here’s the second part. I’m am not ashamed. I am not embarrassed. And I sure as hell am not weak.”
Suicides are the worst outcome when nothing is said out of fear of being stigmatized, he said, adding often times those left behind will say ‘we never knew.’
“That to me is the greatest tragedy,” he said. “Why would someone rather take their life than go for help? The answer is, to some extent, the fear of being perceived as weak.”
His best advice is for those who need help is to find someone they trust to help them get it. Family members can’t treat you, he said, but they can help get you out of bed and help you look for someone who can.
Ron Krahn, farmer and MCGA director shared the popular Paul Harvey clip “So God Made a Farmer” before introducing Landsberg last week. Farmers’ identity and occupation are very closely linked and they see themselves as hard-working and long-suffering, he said.
“Are we doing ourselves a bit of a disservice? When our work defines us as a person we run a huge risk that when farming isn’t going well and we’re under pressure or stress, our self worth and mental and physical health are affected.”
Farmers aren’t inclined to talk about their personal problems either, he added.
“I think it’s past time to start that conversation in agriculture,” Krahn said.
Surveys show Canadian farmers are, indeed, a population group among the most vulnerable to experiencing stress, anxiety, burnout and depression. Results of a mental health survey of farmers done by University of Guelph researchers in 2015 leave little doubt there’s a problem. Their survey analyzed 1,100 farmers’ responses which revealed high levels of emotional exhaustion and cynicism among farmers. Thirty-five per cent reported experiencing depression.
Even so, one in four also said they would be uneasy asking for help from fear of being stigmatized.