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Margaret Trudeau delivers keynote address on mental wellness

Margaret Trudeau

Margaret Trudeau, former wife of the late Right Honourable Pierre Elliot Trudeau, gave a fascinating lecture and Q&A session co-presented by AccessAbility Service and the Health and Wellness Centre, at UTSC on November 10. Trudeau delivered her keynote address – Mental Wellness: Finding Balance, One Person’s Journey – to an audience of over 400 students, staff and GTA residents.

“Mental health is a big issue at school, in the workplace, in the family,” said Trudeau at the beginning of her speech. “Everywhere, someone is always suffering.”

 An energetic and engaging speaker, Trudeau is currently on a cross-country promotional tour for her highly anticipated new memoir, Changing My Mind, which describes her life-long struggles with mental illness. She made headlines in 2006 by announcing that she has battled bi-polar disorder – a mood disorder characterized by elevated levels of energy and cognition followed by periods of severe depression – for her entire life.

Trudeau believes her illness was exacerbated when she took on the duties of the Prime Minister’s wife at the age of just 22. She explained how the disease made her feel terribly isolated; for her, 24 Sussex Drive was nothing more than the “Crown Jewel of federal penitentiary.” After the birth of her second son, Alexandre, she began exhibiting the symptoms of manic depression, eventually ending up in the psychiatric ward of an Ottawa hospital.

For years, doctors treated Trudeau’s chemical imbalance with drugs such as Valium, lithium and Prozac. But after the tragic skiing death of her third son, Michel, she sank into such a severe depression that drugs couldn’t help. Her attempts at self-medication only made things worse and she nearly died by refusing to seek assistance.

Finally, after being admitted to hospital and finding a doctor she trusted, Trudeau began finding a way out of her darkness. Through a strict regimen of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), she was able to reformulate the way she thought about her problems and develop mental skills to help her maintain her balance (hence the title of her memoir, Changing My Mind). In addition to CBT, she says her successful healing can be attributed to her strong will to overcome her depression, both for herself and for her family.

“Forgiveness is a huge part of healing,” said Trudeau at the end of her speech. “There’s a great hope for recovery if you believe you can recover. [So] reach out and get help.”

Today, one in five Canadians suffer from some form of mental illness, with depression being the most common. According to Trudeau, women’s mental health is often complicated further by hormones that are released at specific times in their lives, such as during premenstruation, pregnancy and menopause.

Having learned the skills necessary to deal with her own mental health issues, Trudeau now travels across Canada giving speeches, sharing her experiences and helping reduce the stigma related to mental illness, a stigma that arguably relegates these issues to the shadows of the Canadian health care system. She works with the Royal Ottawa Hospital to raise funds for mental health research and treatment and she is also the honorary president of WaterCan, a Canadian charity dedicated to providing clean drinking water, basic sanitation and hygiene education to the world’s poorest people.

Her memoir, Changing My Mind, was released in bookstores across Canada on October 12.

© University of Toronto Scarborough