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Mental illness cannot be “fixed” alone. Just ask Margaret Trudeau, who suffered for her entire life but found solace with outside help.

By Joel Kranc

It’s not easy being a Trudeau. There is the constant tug-of-war with the press, the scrutiny of the public at large and the sometimes insular feelings that come with the job. Often, the pressure is too great and can lead to dealing with mental health issues in a very public way.

Of course, the Trudeau referenced here is Margaret – the ex-wife to a past Canadian Prime Minister and the mother to the current one.

Margaret Trudeau has struggled with bipolar disorder her entire life and dealt with it sometimes publically and sometimes privately. But for a long time, she never dealt with it all.

“It’s hard to diagnose whether you are just an angry teenager trying to find your own identity or if you’re someone with a serious mental illness,” she said at a speech given during the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA)’s Annual Conference and Trade Show in Toronto. “I didn’t have a serious mental illness, but I was very unhappy a lot and was aware of what was going on in the world” – which, at that time, was the Vietnam War.

At the age of 18, Margaret met Pierre Trudeau at what was then the new Club Med in Tahiti. Her mother informed her that the man she had been talking to was “the ‘black sheep’ of the Liberal Party.” But in the interim, she went back to university and started feeling more of the symptoms of her bipolar disorder.

“I started having terrible thoughts of uselessness of powerlessness – depression is a terrible thing,” she said.

At that time, she turned to marijuana – something that she said “cooled her down” from the waves of highs and lows that she was so eager to smooth out.

“I was doing what so many of us who are suffering alone with a mental illness were doing – trying to fix ourselves, trying to get hold of our brains, our feelings and our emotions,” she said. “Mental illness and addiction, mental illness and substance abuse go together and it’s a real part of the illness if you are trying to fix yourself.”

Another episode in Margaret’s life, as she recalled, came after the birth of her second son, Sasha. Her post-partum depression was becoming more acute and turning, as she put it, into “mania.” She tried to travel and give herself “mental first aid,” but you can’t fix yourself out of a mental illness, she told the audience.

The epiphany, she stressed, has to come from within and that is the realization that people cannot “fix” themselves or go it alone. There is a need for support or advice from others.

The first time Margaret Trudeau said she got real help was when she went to see her family doctor about a pinched nerve.

“The doctor looked at me and asked: ‘What’s really pinching you?’ That was the first time my doctor asked what was really happening with me… I was trying bravely to be the best I could be but I wasn’t doing well,” she recalled. “The brain doesn’t have a picture of your emotions and physical ailments to catch up with the emotional troubles one faces.”

As she started to change her life and re-marry, Trudeau had her fifth baby and again fell into depression and experienced mood swings. She also faced the loss of her third son, who was swept away by an avalanche.

“That’s when we get help, finally. When we are in so much pain,” she said.

And that is when Margaret took the steps to see psychiatrists and take medication. And once brain health can be balanced, better choices can be made, even if all is not cured. She said her doctor made her realize that it was her decision to get well and not put the onus on others – which helped Trudeau take more stock of her life and seek out the support and help she needed to get well.

“The most important thing for people, especially in HR, is that most illnesses will come out in the workplace.” – Margaret Trudeau

“Be mindful of your choices, every day, and always choose the healthy and good side. Don’t give into weaker side and impulses,” she said. “You can’t make us want to get help but you can plant the seeds.”

This is true of the HR professional – those people in the audience that day, listening to Trudeau’s talk. Planting seeds, being open, having the conversation without shame and with recognition can hopefully lead the person with a mental disorder to take a leap of faith and try new methods, treatments and support from loved ones.

And HR professionals shouldn’t expect they know all the ways and have all the tools to deal with mental illness in the workplace. There are tools such as the Workplace Strategies for Mental Health, a website devised by the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace, that discusses management tools, offers employee resources and even offers job-specific strategies to deal with many mental health issues. This free resource is a start for employers and HR professionals looking to take the first steps in helping employees that may not be able to help themselves.

“The most important thing for people, especially in HR, is that most illnesses will come out in the workplace,” she said. “It’s so important to recognize in the workplace the people who are suffering and the things you can do are small, but the first thing you can do is not judge.”

Finally, Trudeau says that by inclusion, rather than exclusion, by bringing people in, giving people time and recognizing them as human beings rather than working colleagues could have the positive effects of lifting people up. Even if it is not a cure, at least this form of help and acknowledgement will lead to the first steps of those people to feel supported, seek help and hopefully resume more productive and happier lives. 

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