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I’ve had the good fortune of attending a yearly conference called “Living with Mental Illness and Addiction” where the crowd is a mix of health professionals and individuals with lived experience. It’s a safe space for those that want to learn and share about mental health in any way.

There is always a keynote speaker at the conference who is a celebrity of sorts. Their speeches are personal. They give us a glimpse into their celebrity world as we know it as outsiders and a glimpse into their world of living with a mental illness. This resonates deeply with the crowd. 

He called it “the speech in the back pocket.”

The keynote address is usually 45 minutes long and there is always a question period for 30 minutes after the speaker finishes. This is a time where individuals in the crowd are free to come to a microphone and ask questions. A bit like Reddit’s AMA (ask me anything) without the safety net of the computer screen. Early in my career, I remember taking a course on presenting to the public. The seasoned instructor talked at length about how to handle questions from your audience, especially when your forum is open to the public. Some questions will completely rattle you, he said, you’re not even sure what the person is asking or if it’s even related in any way to what you’re talking about. He called it “the speech in the back pocket.”

These are individuals in your audience who have their specific personal reason for being there and they’ve come to make it known to others. It happened to me twice before and I got rattled. This conference brought out many speeches in the back pocket. Individuals feel this is a safe place and come to share something about their lives. Sometimes it’s hard to figure if there’s a question with their statement. I’ve seen experienced celebrities struggle with the open forum. It’s not an easy task.

Six years ago, when I received the conference press release, I saw the keynote address was a man named Michael Landsberg. I have to admit I didn’t know who he was. I researched him online and saw he was the host of a sports show on TSN and was called brash in his online intro. I was worried about how he would fit in at the conference. 

From the time he walked on stage at the conference, he had the audience captivated. He told the story of his darkest time with mental illness and you could have heard a pin drop in the room.

“I was deep in the dark hole. It was Tuesday, November 24, 2008, at four in the morning and we were doing Off the Record at the Grey Cup. I had four sleepless nights. I was sitting on the edge of my bed thinking to myself, ‘I know why people take their lives,’ because I was in so much pain that I was aware that there was a finite amount of time that I could continue like that. That sense of hopelessness, that sense of loneliness. If I hadn’t been through it before and know that it would pass, it might have killed me. But it didn’t.”

“A year later I was interviewing former NHL player Stephane Richer, and he agreed that I could ask about his mental health as he had been open about it before. We went on the air and we talked for about a minute, when I asked how he was doing? He said: ‘I’m doing a lot better.’ And I said: ‘I struggled too.’ What followed was a candid conversation between two men about our mutual struggles.”

“There was a flood of emails after the show. Many of them from men saying the same thing. This was the first time they’ve seen two men, talking openly about their mental health without shame, embarrassment, or seeming weak. They wanted to share their story with me. For some, it was the first time they’re telling anyone, and it’s with me in this email. This changed my life. That was the first time I shared in such a public way. It was then that I realized the power that we all have to use our platforms.” 

They were heard.

“So, two and a half years later, I had this moment, which I call my holy shit moment. Somebody who communicated with me after the Stephane Richer interview sent me another email. The email said: ’Hey, Michael you don’t remember me, Tyson Wilson from North Battleford, Sask. Two and a half years ago, you and Stephane Richer talked about your struggles with depression. I messaged you and you messaged me back and we went back and forth five times. But what I didn’t tell you was that my method was in my closet, I never told you what was going on. I never told you I was suicidal. I never told you the ping from you answering my email saved my life. I just told you that I didn’t think that there was hope for me.’ And you said, ’What do you have to lose if you go for help?’” “’That changed my life because here I am, two and a half years later, able to celebrate my life.’ Tyson added: ’Imagine, I had written a note to my daughter saying why I ended my life. How can this be?—a parent thinking my kid would be better off without me. I mean, no rational brain would think that.’ He said: ’That’s because a couple of guys shared.’”

 After his 45 minutes of speaking, Landsberg opened questions from the floor. I have never seen a more engaged crowd, or any keynote speaker relate to the audience which such humility. He hit it out of the park.

He handled the speeches in the back pockets like a pro. “Some days suck,” he said, when they were done. They were heard.

Excerpt from the book, Send Suicide Packing – There’s Something We All Can Do To Help – author Janet MacDonald

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Andy Milligan
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Mental Health problems does not mean you’re mental!

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