Depression – a Sickness, Not a Weakness:  An Interview with Sports Broadcaster Michael Landsberg

By Christina Newberry

Michael Landsberg has been a fixture of Canadian sports broadcasting for close to two decades. As the host of TSN’s Off the Record since 1997, he’s known for his brash on-air persona and tough sports interviews. What fans didn’t know until 2008 is that behind the scenes, Michael was fighting a long-term, ongoing battle with depression.

Michael Landsberg
Michael Landsberg

Since revealing his illness on-air in a groundbreaking interview with hockey star Stéphane Richer, Michael has dedicated himself to fighting the stigma of mental illness in Canada. His Sick Not Weak campaign has developed into a Twitter community connected by the #sicknotweak hashtag, and will soon grow to include SickNotWeak.com, an interactive community for people who suffer from depression or love someone who does. As he gets ready for the site to launch, Michael spoke with Ageless Living about his successful television career and his very personal journey to urge others suffering from depression to step out of the shadows and ask for help.

Why Sports Media? “I Was Failing at Everything Else.”

“It’s what I really wanted to do, but I never thought I could do it. I always thought it would be unattainable, like saying you want to be an actor, but then how do you get a job? What really launched me into the world of media, the world of sport, is that I was failing at everything else. I was in my third year at the University of Toronto, and I knew that after third year I would fail out. I decided: ‘You know what? I have no other options, so why not dive in.’ I think my greatest asset was probably the fact that I had no safety net. I had no fallback position.”

Everybody is Bad at the Beginning

“I applied to Ryerson for radio and television without telling them that I’d been at U of T, because I knew that if I had to send my transcripts, I’d never get in. Once I was in, I just outworked everyone else, because I knew that I was bad and that everybody is bad at the beginning. If you don’t realize you need a ton of work, then you’re a fool.”

Dealing with the Haters

“When you’re on television, you serve yourself up to be complimented and to be criticized. If you only expect to be complimented, then you’re foolish. So if you’re lucky, and you were brought up with a healthy but appropriate sense of self-esteem, you’re able to wade through it and say I don’t care. It doesn’t matter what people think of me, as long as they watch. It doesn’t matter if people think that I’m a jerk or that I’m arrogant.

“And if it doesn’t matter, then I’m way better off playing along with it. You can’t rip into someone when they laugh. You totally diffuse anyone’s ability to make fun of you when you make fun of yourself.”

Aging Gracefully On Screen

“Everybody I work with is younger than me. It’s a weird turn in your life, when you go from being the youngest person in the room, and then one day you go, wow, I think I’m one of the oldest. As a producer and host, I order pizza once a week, and I bring breakfast once a week. And I never eat anything that I bring or that I order because when you’re trying to maintain a reasonable weight for health reasons and for television reasons, you can’t eat what you want. I guess my philosophy on eating is to understand what it is I’m putting in my body and measure it. And I stay active: I go to spin class with my daughter three or four days a week and I exercise with weights in my basement.”

Starting the Conversation About Mental Illness

“I have suffered from depression and general anxiety disorder since 1997, the same year we started Off the Record. I have suffered very severely at times. I never talked about it on the air until after 2008, when I had my most profound depression. If you were measuring it by the depth of a hole, this was the deepest hole that I’d ever been in. And when I came out of that, by coincidence, we had a guest on the show – Stéphane Richer, who was a Stanley Cup winner, the last player to score 50 goals for the Montreal Canadiens. And I had read that after he won his Stanley Cup in 1994, he had attempted suicide. But I had never heard him talk about it, and I had never read about it again. I can remember the exact moment – he was standing up against the wall outside our green room, and I said, ‘Stéphane, you don’t know me, and you have no obligation to do this, but I’d like to ask you about your depression – how you’re doing, how it’s affected your life. And as I throw it out there, I will include myself, and say, yeah, I have suffered too.’

“I wasn’t doing that because I thought I could really make a difference in people’s lives. I was doing that because it was my job to do interesting television. I wasn’t trying to change the world. But after the show went to air, there were emails, probably two dozen of them, all of them from men, and almost all of them saying the same thing: Dear Michael. I watched you talk about your depression with Stéphane Richer today. It was the first time in my life I had heard two men talk about depression. It was the first time in my life that I ever heard anyone talk about it without seeming to be ashamed or embarrassed. And most of all, you didn’t seem weak. I have suffered from depression for a decade, or for five years, or for one year, or for six months, or for 20 years, and I have never told anyone until this moment when I am writing to you. And now that I’m writing to you, I think that I’m ready to go for help.

“I was totally shocked, totally blown away. I thought to myself, well shame on me for not speaking about it before. I never spoke about it publicly because I never thought that it would have an impact on anyone. I always felt, why would anyone care about some guy who’s on television, whether I’ve had depression. And I think I didn’t understand the magnitude of the stigma because I never felt the stigma – because I was never embarrassed and I was never ashamed. I never thought it was my fault, and I didn’t blame myself for it, so I never really knew the extent to which other people blamed themselves. So it was after that show and that reaction that I thought, I’ve got to change my the direction of my life.”

Building a Social Media Community

“I have this ability because of the platforms I’m given to reach out to people, and every time I reach out, I’m always shocked by how people react. Twitter was no different. There’s this feeling of family. The #sicknotweak family offers strength and support for each other. And I would have guessed in advance that it wouldn’t really have made a big difference to people because how much strength or support could you feel from some faceless Twitter handle that you will likely never meet in your life? But what I found out was that just the knowledge that there are people out there who are hearing you when you say that you’re struggling, just that knowledge can make the difference between life and death.[pull_quote_right]But what I found out was that just the knowledge that there are people out there who are hearing you when you say that you’re struggling, just that knowledge can make the difference between life and death.[/pull_quote_right]

“People regularly say to the #sicknotweak family, ‘Hey, you guys saved my life.’ And it takes so little for me to do this that now I look at it not as, hey good for you for doing it, but shame on me if I don’t. If you knew that it was so simple to impact someone’s life, shame on you if you don’t do it.”

The Fight of Your Life

“On a daily basis I speak to people who are critically ill – not with cancer or with heart disease or with an autoimmune disorder – I’m talking about with mental illness. People who have cancer very seldom in Canada can’t get in to see an oncologist. But someone who has severe depression can wait until it’s too late to get in to see a specialist.

“You have to fight for your mental health the way you would fight if someone broke into your house and tried to strangle you. You would kick and you would punch, and you would do everything in your power to survive, and that’s what you have to do here. It’s not easy because it’s not as simple as saying I’m going to fight the person in front of me. You have to fight to get in to see a doctor. You have to go to your local hospital and you have to go the ER and say you can’t just send me home. It’s unfair to tell people they have to fight that much because by the nature of a mental illness like depression, it saps the energy out of you. So when you have the least amount of energy in your life, that’s when you need the most energy and when you have to fight the greatest. I understand how tough this is because I’ve been there. And I understand that you can’t drag yourself out of bed so it’s next to impossible to go out and camp out at your doctor’s office, but it’s a matter of life or death.

“My first plea with someone is tomorrow, when you get up, you call your family doctor and you make an appointment. And you say this is an emergency, I need to get in to see you. And that starts the process of being in the healthcare system for your mental illness, and with that comes some hope.”

Overcoming Stigma, One Person at a Time

“The goal is not to change the world. The goal is not to change the country. The goal is to reach one person ­– that one person who was ashamed and embarrassed and felt weak and so never went for help. If that one person feels empowered to come out and to share with his or her family, and to share with his or her employer and then to go out and get help, then you’re a success.

“Right now, I’m talking to one person who will read this, and I’m saying, you need to share. You need to pick one person to share with if you’ve never done that before. And once you’ve done that, you’ve taken a huge step toward getting your life back. And you need to change something in your life. You feel hopeless when you go day after day, week after week feeling the same way, and not having anything to change in your life. If you have been depressed for six months or a year or 10 years, you can assume that when you wake up tomorrow you’re going to be depressed. So what are you going to change that may change how you feel? Whether it’s to make an appointment with a doctor, whether it’s to research, you need to change something. Change is hope.”

Connect with Michael Landsberg on Twitter at @heylandsberg or visit www.SickNotWeak.com.

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