Margaret Trudeau on the role of kindness in workplace mental health

While doing more to support employ­ees with mental-health challenges may prompt some apprehension about a potential increase in absenteeism, one advocate says addressing the issue often starts with something as simple as a greater understanding and awareness by their employers.

“It has to be the managers,” says the advocate. “They have to know where to send them.”

The mental-health advocate is no less than Margaret Trudeau,who spoke to Benefits Canada after telling the story of her battle with mental illness during her keynote address to the Benefits and Pension Summit in Toronto on April 1.

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For Trudeau, it falls to managers to show compassion and understanding simply by asking if an employee in distress needs help. “Kindness has to be part of the equation,” she says, sug­gesting managers shouldn’t leave the issue to others to take care of. “They must not delegate it off to peer support groups.”

Trudeau made the comments after taking an enraptured audience through the long tale of her battle with bipolar disor­der. While she said she had a balanced childhood, she turned to drugs during university as she started to experience the symp­toms of her illness. “I took to marijuana like a duck to water,” she said, noting the drug “lifted me up out of my depression.”

Nevertheless, Trudeau ended up at what she called the “crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system” — 22 Sussex Dr. — after marrying former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. With a big age gap between her and her husband, who was obviously busy at work, she found herself isolated and with nothing to do. Then came children, but she still found herself struggling. “Within a few weeks, this grey descended over me,” she said, referring to the time period after the birth of her second child.

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The depression alternated with bouts of mania. At one point, she ended up taking off to Montreal and then to Europe. She highs and lows. But then, famously, she made what she called a detour to Toronto to “hang out with the Rolling Stones.” The mania that caused her to lose all caution had hit again.

Trudeau continued to experience various ups and downs as she tried different medications. Things took a particularly bad turn for the worse after the death of her son Michel in 1998. But eventually, as she got help and found better mood-stabilizing medication in the right doses, she got to a better place.

While Trudeau says she’s “never going to be cured of bipolar,” she’s optimistic about Canada’s prospects for doing a better job of addressing the issue given the increased focus on mental health and the arrival of a new government coincidental­ly led by her son, Justin Trudeau. “There will be more under­standing, more attention, and there will be more sharing.”

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In fact, another speaker at the event, Diana McNiven of GE Canada, said Canada is “leap years” ahead of other countries when it comes to workplace mental health. She told the story of her company’s mental-health strategy, which she said included changes such as doing more to manage the disability process to allow for gradual returns to work. The company also, as Trudeau suggested is key, worked on manager awareness and training around mental health. And the good news for companies is the mental-health strategy didn’t cost a lot, said McNiven.

For Trudeau, there’s also an upside in reduced costs due to lost productivity. “I know that we are losing so many people in the workplace,” she says.

Glenn Kauth is the editor of Benefits Canada:

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