Michael Landsberg will deliver the talk Darkness and Hope: Depression, Sport and Me on Feb. 13, as part of Jewish Family Services’ Family Life Education Series. (photo from JFS)
Michael Landsberg is a Canadian sports journalist and former host of Off the Record for TSN. He is also a passionate advocate for removing the stigma around mental illness, and will be coming to Vancouver next month to deliver the talk Darkness and Hope: Depression, Sport and Me. A Jewish Family Services (JFS) Family Life Education event, the talk will be held at Congregation Beth Israel on Feb. 13, with all proceeds going to support JFS mental health initiatives in the community.
Landsberg, who suffers from depression and generalized anxiety disorder, has in recent years been an ambassador for Bell Let’s Talk, an initiative that raises awareness and encourages dialogue about mental health. In 2013, his documentary, Darkness and Hope: Depression, Sports and Me, was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award for best history or biography documentary program or series. The Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health has named Landsberg one of its Champions of Mental Health. Landsberg is known for his Twitter hashtag #sicknotweak, which encourages discussion around mental health and creates a forum for those needing help.
“We’re thrilled and delighted to have Michael Landsberg come and do a talk at Beth Israel,” said Alan Stamp, clinical counseling director at JFS. “He has become an ambassador and a pioneer for mental health. He took a risk coming out about his struggles, [and] for him to come out and share his experiences is quite captivating. What he does best of all is he addresses stigma and, when someone in his role can speak out, it helps to lessen the suffering of the one in five Canadians – which is a conservative estimate in my opinion – who experiences a mental health concern over their lifetime.”
In Vancouver, Landsberg will be doing a one-hour talk with a question-and-answer period afterwards. He spoke to the Jewish Independent about helping people struggling with mental health issues.
“In general, sports mimics life,” he said. “When I speak about life and the stigma around mental health, I know we’re not as far ahead as we think we are. I don’t think we’re nearly as far ahead as we would want to believe. We’ve been working hard and it’s way better, yet I hear from people in the sports world all the time who are still in the closet, or they’re feeling shame.”
A major focus of Landsberg’s work is combating the idea that mental illness is a sign of weakness or is something “self-inflicted.”
“That is the arrogance of mental health,” he said. “Mentally healthy people sometimes believe that they would have been able to overcome the illness – they don’t understand the reality that people with mental health issues face, and how unchosen and beyond their control it can actually be. I try to educate the non-sufferer to better understand what mental illness is, and that it is like any other illness, no different from a physical ailment.”
There are a number of reasons why both Stamp and Landsberg feel sport is a good entry point for this discussion.
“I’m a huge believer that the best way to break people of the stigma is to find really strong people, like Clara Hughes, who have struggled with this, to talk about it,” said Landsberg.
Hughes, a Canadian cyclist and speed skater who has won multiple Olympic medals in both sports, has struggled with depression. “If [Hughes] was close at the end of the race, she would win. If you find that even a person of that strength and accomplishment can suffer from depression, it changes your perspective,” said Landsberg. “Everyone with depression feels that they are not understood, [but] when you hear someone else talk about it, then you know we all feel some things in common, and … that is incredibly empowering. Real-life examples are great.”
Landsberg has also partnered with firefighters who suffer from mental health issues, encouraging them to share their stories.
Landsberg and Stamp believe that reaching youth is key to changing the future, and sports can be key in doing that.
“We have to help younger people to understand that mental health concerns are a natural part of being alive,” said Stamp. “We have to do that much younger, like 6 or 7 years old. They need to know that when you feel distress, there is a way out.
“We have to start with language,” he said. “How do we describe somebody who is struggling? Children can be injured by the labels we use … we should be teaching youth and adults how to be listeners, how to approach someone and see if they need help. Having some education around a mental health problem is tremendously impactful. We need to be kinder, gentler and more empathic in our dealings with people.”
Tickets to hear Landsberg speak are $10 and are available from jfsvancouver.ca or 604-257-5151.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.