Michael Landsberg has been host of TSN’s Off the Record talk show since 1997 and is one of Canada’s best-known sports journalists.
In 1998, Landsberg sought treatment for serious depression. In 2009, Landsberg interviewed former NHLer Stéphane Richer, and the two talked about their shared experience with depression. The interview generated an unprecedented response and Landsberg became a passionate advocate for mental health issues.
Tonight (March 6), Landsberg will join former Ottawa Senators Captain Daniel Alfredsson to receive an Inspiration Award at The Royal’s annual Inspiration Gala.
Q: Can you describe your journey with mental health issues?
A: Depression doesn’t hit you like a car hits you. No one gets hit by a car and thinks, ‘I wonder what just happened?’ Depression is kind of like a change in temperature of the bath. You’re in it, it’s nice and warm. You don’t feel the temperature change but at one point you think, ‘Wow. It’s actually pretty cold in this bath.’ For me, that’s the way depression was. One day I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. I have been slipping and slipping and slipping and denying the fact that I really am sick. There really is something wrong with me. Who I was is now gone and who I’ve been replaced with is someone I don’t want to be.’
Q: How did you find help?
A: Without any hesitation whatsoever, I was seeking out a psychiatrist. At that point, the stigma (of mental illness) had no effect on me. I literally walked into a psychiatrist’s office and said, ‘When I walk out of here I need a prescription because I am really sick.’ She gave me a prescription, I filled it in the pharmacy in the building, bought a bottle of water and took the pill right there.
Q: Do you remember how you felt the day you went for help?
A: That actual memory has translated into something I try to encourage people with. Change is hope. If you’ve been sick long enough that you’d consider going to the doctor — six months, a year, five years, a lifetime — at a certain point you become resigned to it. You have no hope of being better the next day unless you change something. For me, just making an appointment gave me hope.
Q: At the time you got sick, you were successful, you had fame, you, presumably, were wealthy. And yet, you were still depressed …
A: I had, by most people’s definition, everything that you would want. I had a job that I loved, a family I loved, I had parents in my life … but still I was sick. I try to convey the sense that having good things in your life doesn’t insulate you from cancer and it doesn’t insulate you from depression either. Not that there can’t be a link between life’s circumstances and depression, but for me it had nothing to do with it.
Q: Did you have any experience with depression or mental illness before your own?
A: I had zero experience. I think I believed every bit of the stigma. I thought it was a weakness. I had a friend, who I’ve become very close to, who suffered a nervous breakdown. But (at the time) I thought he was the biggest weak-ass in the world. I think that’s one of the reasons I can be an advocate for the illness. I understand both sides of the equation while people who haven’t suffered only understand one side.
Q: What made you decide to go public with your own struggle?
A: I never hid my struggles from anyone I worked with or my family. I didn’t tiptoe in with my jacket pulled up to see my psychiatrist. But I never spoke about it with the platforms I have like Off the Record. I never thought it would impact anyone. I thought people would say, ‘Michael, who gives a s— about your problems? Who cares?
Then, without the purpose of helping anyone, I asked Stéphane Richer on the show. I said, ‘You don’t know me, feel free to say no, but I read that you suffered depression in the 90s and that you actually attempted suicide after winning the Stanley Cup. I think people would like to know how you’re doing.’ I told him that when I threw it out there I’d say that I have struggled as well. It was very painful for him, but he said OK.
So we went on air and we talked about it for a short period of time and that was it. I thought it was interesting television. Then I started getting emails from people and I was shocked by what they said. Virtually all of them can be summed up like this: ‘Dear Michael. I’ve never told this to anyone, but watching you and Stéphane Richer talk about your own struggles without shame or fear, I feel powerful enough to say I’ve struggled for X number of years … ‘ That moment — when I saw those emails — that changed my life. What a great gift. Shame on me if I don’t use it.
Q: Is talking openly about mental health part of your own healing?
A: No. I’m a chronic, lifelong sufferer of depression. I’m on medication today and I will be for the rest of my life. Every time I’ve gone off the medication I’ve relapsed. But after 2008, when I fell in the deepest hole of my life and suffered through the deepest pain of my life, I decided that I will never be without treatment.
Q: Does it still frighten you?
A: Oh yes. It scares me to the point it can actually detract from my quality of life. I have never heard a depression sufferer argue with me on this.
Q: Can you describe the 2008 relapse, the ‘deepest hole’ of your life?
A: In 2008 I had a chronic worry over someone I loved and my anxiety went through the roof. I fell into this really, really severe depression. I did what many people do when they go off medication, I said, ‘I can do this myself. I can beat this thing.’
I was in Montreal for the 2008 Grey Cup and I can remember being in a hotel room, sitting on the edge of my bed at 4 a.m., thinking that if you told me this is what I had to exist with for the rest of my life, I couldn’t have gone on. I wasn’t suicidal, but I was desperate for the pain to end. It was my wife who said I had to go back on medication.
Q: What made you want to go off your medication?
A: When you’re really sick and someone offers you medication, all you can think about is getting better. This is all you care about. I have been given my life back. But after six months you think, ‘OK, I feel better, but I’m feeling bogged down because medications carry a lot of side effects.’ Then after a year you think, ‘Was I really that sick? Will I fall into that hole again? I understand myself better and these side effects are driving me nuts.’
Q: What are those side effects?
A: There’s all kinds of things. I can sleep anytime. I become exhausted around this time of day (late afternoon) when all I can think about is sleep. I can have three naps a day if I’m not working. I can’t feel euphoric on this medication. My life is squeezed between a four and an eight. My worst day is a zero without medication and on medication my worst day is a four. But my best day is not a 10, which it was before medication. My best day is an eight.
Q: How important to you is your role as an advocate?
A: I’m not an advocate for medication. I’m an advocate for getting help. So many people you hear them say, ‘I don’t believe in medication.’ That’s just foolish. But what I can really help people with is that sense of loneliness, that feeling that no one knows what I’m going though. Depression is a language. If you haven’t felt it, you can’t speak the language. I can speak the language. I can reduce that sense of loneliness.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.