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He switched on the light - then fell into darkness

Continued from Page 4

Did such disappointments bring about his mental illness? No. But "it's had to contribute something. Nothing satisfies me." Still, experiencing depression himself has given him more empathy, and added to his existing passion. And it has not remotely slowed him down - he continues to crisscross the country.

He will devote the next year to giving speeches, writing his book on the Roundtable's decade and advising the RCMP and the Canadian military on mental health.

Meanwhile, the sinking global economy is aggravating his concerns. In a culture of mass layoffs that treats workers as disposable commodities, he says, they are even more apt to stay quiet about depression, stress and anxiety, fearful of stigma. Few employers have moved beyond "wellness" programs to a hard commitment to help prevent mental illness and accommodate those who do fall ill and successfully reintegrate them back into the work force.

It's easy to see why Mr. Wilkerson is apprehensive. Leaders such as Michael Kirby, first chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, predict that work overload, job insecurity and financial fears will spark a fresh wave of depression and other disorders. Psychiatrists across Canada are already reporting heavier caseloads.

Mr. Wilkerson recalls being required to lay off 105 workers while he was at Liberty Health. It initially saved a few million dollars in overhead, but the company wound up having to rehire some because it couldn't function without them.

"Job cuts as a measure to improve competitiveness are fool's gold," he says. "When all was said and done, savings were minimal. It undermined and probably devastated our competitive advantage." It's a lesson he thinks of often in these days of downsizing.

Yet Mr. Wilkerson also sees potential for the crisis to help motivate Canadian workplaces to become venues for mental-health education and prevention - for workplaces to act as communities and invest in human capital.

"The sanity to come out of this mess would be to rediscover the long-term value of people. We've got to get back to the basics of human decency."

Still, sometimes his frustrations erupt into fury - as when an acquaintance in dire need of psychiatric help was recently placed on an 18-month waiting list.

"Maybe this is the source of why and how I wear down," he says. "It's not the task of helping individuals as best I can, but the awful realization of how limited and limiting is the mental-health care system we have allowed to exist in Ontario and in Canada for so goddamn long."

It may be Olga who can most eloquently summarize the challenges her husband has endured, having seen him through the highs and lows of his crusade.

"What's hard to do is to be a first. And he's done 10 years of firsts," she says. "He was the first to bring in businesses, to translate medical language into laymen's terms, to hold Canada-U.S. forums. Nobody spoke of these things before. He was the first to bring it all out into the open. He's a pioneer. But firsts are the hardest things to do because you're usually alone.

"Most people do only one first. Billy has done 60."

Tavia Grant is a Globe and Mail writer.


Hurried and worried

In his speech in Halifax in the summer, Bill Wilkerson presented a set of stress-inducing workplace situations with a humorous twist: "With apologies to David Letterman, let me give you my Top 10 list of management practices now driving us crazy."

10. Treadmill effect. Got that done? Get this done.

9. Lots of responsibility, not much discretion.

8. Too much work, not enough resources? Join the club.

7. Got something to say? E-mail me.

6. What's the priority? Everything.

5. Not sure what's expected of you? So what's your point?

4. Job fulfilment? What's that? Besides, be glad you even have a job.

3. Skills and job don't match up? Not what you were hired to do? Too bad.

2. That's not fair, doesn't make sense? Is it supposed to?

1. Turned your cellphone off? Who told you to do that?

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Return to Breakdown: Canada’s Mental Health Crisis

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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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