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He switched on the light - then fell into darkness

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It's daunting stuff, but Mr. Wilkerson keeps his focus squarely on solutions. "He respects science, he understands the needs of the business community and he is relentlessly optimistic that we can all make a difference if we work together," says Tom Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health in the U.S.

It may help that Mr. Wilkerson typically asks his influential contacts not for money but for their time. Fundraising has not been a priority - which explains why both he and long-time administrator Donna Montgomery have worked for stretches without pay.

The Roundtable's partners have included the big banks, not traditionally the most nimble of institutions. Rob MacLellan, chief investment officer at TD Bank, says Mr. Wilkerson persuaded the "big names" to get involved by deploying the plain facts on lost productivity and the links between mental and physical illnesses.

Among Mr. Wilkerson's breakthroughs was the creation of the Great-West Life savings and insurance company's Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace. He helped to make workplace issues a top priority when the federal Mental Health Commission of Canada started in 2007. He has also influenced curriculum, designing the first-ever compulsory academic program dealing with mental health for students at the McGill University school of management.

And he has made sure that some of the individuals who have been hurt by government or corporate bureaucracy get a chance to share their stories with senior decision-makers. "Despite the often highly distressing nature of the narratives, Bill always manages to pull out a little ray of hope," says Ron Kessler, a professor of health-care policy at Harvard medical school.

For one thing, he speaks about cures: If we can dream about a cure for cancer, why not for depression or schizophrenia? He also emphasizes that depression is as normal as any other illness or injury. But he doesn't mince words about employers' duty to accommodate (by adjusting work hours, for example) and the health profession's need to make treatment more accessible.

"I've seen him be dead honest with business leaders," says Rod Phillips, president and chief executive officer of Shepellˇfgi, the largest provider of employee-assistance programs in Canada: "'You say one thing, but you are not living up to your obligations as an employer.'"

But Mr. Wilkerson hasn't lavished his attention only on bigwigs. Tanya, a Canada Post employee with a bipolar disorder (she asked that her last name be withheld), went to Mr. Wilkerson for advice on returning to work after a leave. He didn't just offer platitudes, but called Canada Post's president. "It made me feel good to have someone on my side," she says.

Tom Regehr was a successful Toronto-based consultant before alcohol and drug abuse left him sleeping on the streets. At the age of 37, he was starting to get clean, but was scared he could go off the rails at any moment. Mr. Wilkerson offered advice, encouragement and his candid opinions.

"There's no bullshit with Bill," says Mr. Reghr, who is now a workplace consultant.

From failure to Fixer

William Edward Wilkerson was born nearly 67 years ago in Niagara Falls, Ont., the last of five kids for an Ontario Hydro generator operator and an American-born, stay-at-home mom.

In high school, he played guard on the basketball team. But he didn't quite sink the shot when it came to graduation - he was kicked out on the last day of Grade 12 after an unfortunate incident involving a water bomb and his math teacher.

His mother was horrified, convinced her son would become a hardened criminal. So that very day, he set out in the family Plymouth to find a job. He landed one as a court reporter for the Tribune in nearby Welland, earning $45 a week.

The young Mr. Wilkerson turned out to be a fine reporter, landing stories about corruption at the Niagara Parks Commission (where perks included "hookers, lots of booze and very expensive food"), the root cause of the 1965 Northeast Blackout (human error in Ontario) and unguarded comments a bishop made while watching a church burn ("holy smokes").

(You can detect the former headline writer in him in all the phrases he has coined in speeches over the years - for instance, "hurried and worried" as an apt description for a typical worker; the message that most mental illnesses are "treatable and beatable"; and "social climate change," the process by which stress can melt resilience, drop by drop.)

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Face it. Fund it. Fix it.

In Breakdown, The Globe and Mail documents the enormous, unaddressed cost of mental illness to Canadian individuals, families and society. The series closes with a search for solutions.


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