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He switched on the light - then fell into darkness

To cap a long, high-powered career, Bill Wilkerson led a campaign to transform the way corporate Canada saw mental illness in the workplace. Then as he reveals here for the first time the professional crisis manager unexpectedly slipped into crisis himself. Tavia Grant reports. Photographs by Fernando Morales

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Bill Wilkerson woke up early in his Halifax hotel room one Tuesday morning last August. A busy day loomed as usual - at 8 a.m., he was supposed to deliver a one-hour keynote address to more than 1,000 people. He was well-rehearsed. There was just one snag: He wasn't sure he could get out of bed.

"There was a fuzziness behind my eyes. My arms felt limp." He felt heavy and frightened for no apparent reason. The man who for a decade had been giving speeches around the world and lobbying for political action as one of Canada's top mental-health experts was now, himself, battling depression.

Desperate to fight the feeling, he did sit-ups, spoke out loud just to hear his own voice, shadow-boxed and swung an imaginary baseball bat - "anything to get to a point where I could get back to a physical presence," he recalls. "Because if I stepped in front of the mirror, I wasn't sure if I would see anybody."

Ultimately he made it to the conference. He spoke. He urged businesses to make mental health a priority. He joked (giving a Top 10 list of "management practices now driving us crazy"). And the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

When Mr. Wilkerson gathered together a host of prominent Canadians 10 years ago to address the social and economic effects of mental illness, he wasn't motivated by personal problems.

But along the way, as head of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health - whether because of his own makeup, stress, frustration or some mix of causes - his own mental and emotional state began to fray. Tensions grew between his public and private personae.

"There's such a surrealism to it," he says now, sitting in the sun-drenched dining room of his century home in Port Hope, Ont. "It's like ... there is Bill, this person, and there is Bill, the other person" - the effusive, approachable Bill who was at home in any social situation and the inner, angry Bill who saw health-care bureaucracies and indifferent employers cause so much misery for people in need of help. "I had to leave that Bill behind."

Today, he is also leaving the Roundtable, winding the organization down after hitting the one-decade mark. He doubts he could have found a replacement, as he wasn't drawing a salary for much of that time. In any case, other groups and individuals are now carrying the torch.

As he prepares to write a book on the Roundtable experience, this skilled professional crisis manager is finally willing to reveal his own crisis to the public.

It's a struggle he kept private for three years, telling no one but his wife, Olga, of his diagnosis.

He never wanted to make his crusade personal - he wanted to present "bulletproof" research to employers and policy-makers to persuade them, with hard-nosed logic, to take the mental-health issue seriously.

"If I'd declared my illness earlier," he says, "I would have become another voice who got religion because they went through it. I got religion long before I had any notion of being affected by it."

But he is willing to reveal himself as he steps down, in the hope that his story will underscore one of his main messages: Mental illness is part of the mainstream in Canada - and it does not spell an end to meaningful work.

Changing the agenda

Mr. Wilkerson is widely credited with moving the conscience of corporate Canada by sparking groundbreaking discussions on mental health among senior executives, scientists and government policy-makers in North America and Europe.

"Ten years ago, this wasn't on anyone's agenda. Now, it is," says Michael Wilson, the former finance minister and current Canadian ambassador to the United States, a leading advocate for mental health since his own son's depression-related 1995 suicide. "You need a unique character to do that, and Bill is one."

Mental illness will strike one in every five Canadians at some point in their lives. Depression and anxiety represent up to 90 per cent of such illnesses and cause up to 35 million lost workdays a year in Canada. Mental illness costs Canadian employers $51-billion a year (chiefly in lost productivity) and is the leading disability claim for insurers.

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