Lisa Raitt's own story colours her mental-health advocacy

The Globe and Mail

Labour Minister Lisa Raitt at home in Oakville June 17, 2011. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

After her second son was born in 2004, Lisa Raitt often felt sad and fretted about how well she was bonding with her baby. When she found herself crying uncontrollably to an Avril Lavigne song in the car, she knew something was seriously wrong.

At the time, Ms. Raitt, a high-powered lawyer in Toronto, couldn’t bring herself to tell her employer she had been diagnosed with postpartum depression. Today, she is the federal Labour Minister and speaks openly about how a combination of medication and therapy helped her recover. She wants to fight the stigma that too often surrounds mental illness, particularly in the workplace.

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She is also confident that her cabinet colleagues and her boss, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, don’t think less of her because she suffered from a mental illness.

“I’m in the cabinet. That’s my workplace. I weighed whether or not I would be stigmatized about talking about it, and I didn’t feel that,” Ms. Raitt said in an interview. “My workplace has a culture that is open to the discussion of the matter. I don’t think a lot of people would expect that.”

This was an important week for mental health in Canada, with the release of a long-awaited national strategy to fix an underfunded and poorly co-ordinated system that leaves many families feeling like they have nowhere to turn. Advocates for mental health are optimistic that the report will lead to change, citing the Conservative government’s openness about mental health and affinity for the issue.

“We are very hopeful. The Prime Minister has shown leadership when others haven’t,’’ said Patrick Dion, vice-chair of Mental Health Commission of Canada’s board of directors.

Mr. Harper set up the commission in 2007. The independent organization was charged with delivering a national strategy and while many of its recommendations fall under provincial jurisdiction, its implementation will require federal leadership and funding.

The issue brings out an element of Mr. Harper’s personality that he shows more in private than in public, Conservative Senator Marjory LeBreton said.

“This is a side people don’t recognize in the Prime Minister, this human compassionate side.”

Former National Hockey League player Luke Richardson and his wife, Stephanie, say they saw it when Mr. Harper had a private meeting with them after their 14-year-old daughter, Daron, committed suicide in 2010.

Canadians caught a glimpse of it when the Prime Minister delivered an eloquent eulogy at the funeral of former Conservative MP Dave Batters who suffered from severe anxiety and depression and took his own life in 2009 at the age of 39.

“Depression can strike the sturdiest of souls. It cares not how much you have achieved or how much you have to live for,” Mr. Harper said.

An estimated 6.7 million Canadians suffer from mental illness at any given time. In recent years, politicians at all levels of government and from all parties have become much more open in talking about its impact on their lives. Ms. Raitt first talked publicly about her experiences at a dinner last year.

Conservative commentator Tim Powers say the Prime Minister has been influenced by a number of people, including former finance minister Michael Wilson, who became a mental-health crusader after losing a son to depression and suicide. Mr. Batters’s widow, Denise, has also been an important player, as is Ms. LeBreton, who was involved in the ground-breaking Senate reports that led to the establishment of the commission.

“We’ve got a lot people who are very committed to this. It will never go back into the shadows, not if any of us have anything to do it.,” Ms. LeBreton said.

Ms. Raitt, spurred on by her own experience, is working on a range of policies and programs to address mental health in the workplace.

She took only two weeks off work after her second child was born.

“I’d be in the boardroom and I would lay Billy in the middle of the table, or his swing would be there in the room. I thought I could do it all. ”

But she said that being able to keep working while she was being treated for postpartum depression was important for her recovery.

“Work was my refuge. I knew what I was doing and I was absolutely in control. Thank God I had work.”

Follow on Twitter: @AnneMcIlroy

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