Q&A: Michael Landsberg

The host of TSN’s ‘Off The Record’ speaks candidly about his own journey with mental illness and how sharing his story has changed him and, more importantly, helped others.

“I have depression.” I know from experience the mere idea of saying this aloud when you actually have depression can feel more suffocating than the mental illness itself. One thing I’ve also learned is how liberating saying it out loud to someone else can be. So when people like sports broadcaster Michael Landsberg share their story, it’s a relief. It’s his voice and voices of others, like Olympian Clara Hughes and retired tennis star Rebecca Marino, that continue to make a difference when they come out and say “I have depression,” or “I have a mental illness.” Because it’s a good chance that someone who is still hiding their pain inside will find respite and hope in knowing they’re not alone.

Landsberg, the popular host of Canada’s long-running sports debate show Off The Record (OTR) on TSN, has no hesitation speaking publicly about his ongoing struggle with mental illness. It’s been 16 years since he first realized that without a doubt he had anxiety and depression. He also realized he had been dealing with it since his youth.

Coincidentally, OTR is also in its 16th season. While the host grew in popularity, he was also experiencing days where his depression caused extreme self-doubt and insecurity. Meanwhile, Landsberg’s in-your-face and aggressive approach to debates and interviews on his show earned him criticism as being self-centred and arrogant – a false assumption according to Landsberg and those closest to him that softened when he began speaking out about his own mental health.

Although Landsberg says he’s never avoided telling the public about his experience with depression and anxiety, he kept his darkest days hidden from the public eye until 2009. The sports broadcaster, known for interviewing many of sport’s greatest (Wayne Gretsky, Clara Hughes and Mike Tyson) literally stumbled into his role as a champion for mental health awareness after an interview with retired NHL player Stéphan Richer, who opened up about his own battle with mental illness. (Richer also appears alongside Clara Hughes and Darryl Strawberry in Landsberg’s 2011 documentary, Darkness and Hope: Depression, Sports and Me). The viewer response he received as a result of Richer’s raw honesty as well as his own woke Landsberg up to a role he says is far more meaningful and purposeful to him than his role on TV. He’s been using OTR and other resources as a platform to keep the conversation about mental health going both inside and outside of the sports world ever since.

AK: I heard you speak recently and it was clear “I am sick, but not weak,” is one of the key messages you hope people who hear your story take with them. Was there any point you thought the opposite, and if so, when did that change?
ML: I think I’ve probably thought the opposite of that as recently as last week. Because when I do fall into a bad place, I beat myself up thinking that I’ve been through this for so long, and I’ve been through it so many times that I should be able to beat it. When my illness forces me down into that hole, I actually say to myself, “What the hell’s wrong with me? I should be better than this.”

And then, it’s like physically or emotionally slapping yourself in the face saying, “Hello, you’re the one who’s out there preaching.” So that is a valuable lesson to me because it gives me way more insight and way more ability to share this with other people.

I get it that illness forces us to lose confidence, and when you start to lose confidence, you start to blame yourself for stuff. But I always thought that my illness was a real sickness and not a weakness. That’s why I didn’t hesitate to tell people. And when I blame myself for it, I do understand that it’s the nature of the illness – that is, we beat ourselves up. I still live with that and I still deal with that.

AK: Does it act as a reminder for you to tell other people?
ML: Oh yeah, this is all really a reminder to me. One of the things that it does – the fact that I’m on medication and I do feel good most of the time – the days that I don’t feel good, is remind me of things that make me more relevant to people I’m talking to who are still suffering or people who have been treated but still continue to suffer as I do.

And there are a few lessons I learn every time: One is that the illness is way worse than I ever remember. Every time I have a bad day, it’s like, “Oh my god, this is worse than I remember.” I start to feel in a minor way all the real bad stuff that goes with it, which is lack of confidence, struggling for direction, belief in oneself – all of those things – I really get a snippet of what they mean.

It was about last year sometime that I had to give a speech on a really bad day, and I remember when I was sitting off stage I messaged my daughter. I said, “Hey, help me out here. I really don’t think I’m going to be very good because I’m not feeling good and I don’t really see the value in me.” I think that makes me a much stronger and better advocate and, at least, an ear and a voice for people who are struggling because it’s not like I’m removed from this illness.

AK: When you have those bad days, you’re obviously still doing speeches as well as your show, Off The Record. How do you get through those days and do “good TV”?
ML: When you say to someone, “How do you do it?” very seldom do they have an answer that cuts to the core. Because we are who we are and we live our lives based on certain strengths that we’re given. We can’t rationalize them.

I have some techniques, and one of them is that I lower that expectation of myself. I know on those days I will not be… See, I’m not saying I’m a great broadcaster – that’s for someone else to say – but however good I am, I can’t be that good on those days, and I know that.

I’ve stopped beating myself up constantly over the fact that over the course of the day, leading up to taping a show like that, I know I’m not going to be at my best. I’m sitting down writing, I’m trying to think of clever things to say, and I can’t. And then I know when I go on to do the show that I will not be spontaneous. It will really all be an act and will be very mechanical. All the stuff that comes easy to me on a day like today – when I feel good – will become incredibly difficult. I know that on my best day when I’m sick I can be OK. That’s what I’m striving for.

AK: So it’s been a bit of process of becoming gentler with yourself?
ML: Yeah, it has, and it’s easier when it’s not constant. My last sort of big fall into the dark hole was in 2008. That was three months of doing shows with that frame of mind, but worse. My bad days now are probably, in terms of depression, a five out of 10. In 2008 it was 10 out of 10, and it went on for three months. That was a real vicious cycle for me of, “I can’t be the person that I want to be, but I want to be that person, and I’ve proved that I can be that person.” So I get depressed about the fact that I’m not me and that guy that was me has disappeared and I want to get him back.

AK: Can you claim that who you are now is who you are or do you continue to always have that inner conflict?
ML: I think who I am now is close enough to who I want to be or what I can be that I’m satisfied with it. I’m no longer waking up and thinking to myself that I will be unable to be the person I want to be. But one of the things medication does is it changes you.

I don’t know if you’ve every been on medication, but it kind of takes away every dramatic feeling you would have, and that means that you’re not you – you don’t react to happiness and sadness the way you would have reacted if you weren’t on medication. I’ve had lots of times when people are telling me really sad stories about their lives and I’m thinking, “Wow, you know, I really should be sad, but I don’t seem to be capable of actually feeling the sadness.”  I can acknowledge somebody else’s pain and be totally sympathetic to it, but my medication does not allow me to go in drastic directions.

AK: Since speaking out about your struggle with mental illness in 2009, what has the journey been like for you personally?
ML: I think it’s given me a sense of human satisfaction that I’ve never had before. I look at my job, for instance, as being kind of a neutral-for-all-mankind job. I don’t do anything good for mankind, particularly, and I certainly don’t do any bad for mankind – although, some coaches in the NHL would probably disagree with that (laughs). And that’s how most of us are, right? Most of us aren’t doing anything good or doing anything bad; we’re just going on with our lives.

I found out that I have this ability, and I found out really by chance. This is not me orchestrating this, thinking, “OK, I can really help people if I share.”

I shared once on Off The Record, and I found that in particular men responded, saying they had never heard another man talk about his illness, and the fact that I talked about it candidly and openly without being ashamed – without showing weakness – empowered them to go and share with somebody else. But I didn’t plan that; it just happened by chance.

This realization that I hold this power in my hand has done two things to me: It’s given me a purpose in life to do for others, and it’s also made me aware of this responsibility because I have this power. Instead of being commended for sharing, I think that I should be criticized if I don’t.

AK: Obviously not everyone who watches you or who has heard your story is a public figure or an elite athlete. How do you find people are connecting? And in connecting with these stories, how do we continue the momentum and increase the conversation about mental health?
ML: I think we continue to find people to come out and share. I did an interview last week with an athlete I think we’re going to air next week. His name is Royce White and was the 16th pick in the NBA draft last year from Iowa State. He was chosen by Houston. He has severe general anxiety disorder and other disorders. One of the ways his anxiety manifests itself is in the fear of flying. So he has not yet played for the Houston Rockets. He has signed a contract, but he has stated publicly, and you’ll hear him pretty clearly next week talking about it, that he thinks teams have a responsibility to treat mental illness like physical illness. If they have a doctor, a psychiatrist, that goes to the coach and says, “Royce can’t play today because he’s really struggling, he’s having panic attacks,” or whatever it may be, that’s as a legitimate explanation for not playing as having a twisted ankle. The more people that come up and show strength and not weakness, I think the better message it sends.

People don’t necessarily have an obligation to be a role model because they play professional sports or they work in television. But when you know that you have the power to shape somebody else’s life, all you have to do is be honest. I have an unending amount of honesty inside of me. You know, I can go and speak in Vancouver and an hour after I start speaking I still have as much inside me. It’s not a depleting resource, so why not share it given the fact that it has this kind of impact. I think it’s also important to note it with humility too. This is not uniquely me: I am only able to influence people because of the platforms I get that the average person doesn’t. But if the average person did my job and had been through the same experiences and chose to come out, then they would have the same power I have. So it’s not something like, “Look at me.” It’s, “Listen to me and understand that I get it.”