Trudeau: Keep mental health’s signs in mind

Margaret Trudeau’s days as a student at Simon Fraser University are tinged with hints of mental illness.

“That’s when my symptoms started showing. As a student, I was living a very unbalanced life. I didn’t eat well. I stressed too much. I was susceptible, with triggers for an emotional disorder,” said Canada’s former first lady, who at 22 married Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

Speaking at Western this evening, she is urging students to watch for symptoms of mental illness and to get help when they recognize them.

“I think students have to be particularly careful. The more you are informed, once you can identify the problem, then the problem can start to disappear,” she said.

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder almost three decades after graduation – following the tragic death of her then youngest son, a divorce from the former prime minister and a failing second marriage – Trudeau said she felt “tremendous relief,” finally getting an explanation for years of tumultuous emotions and breakdowns that, she said, strained some personal relationships.

Still, Trudeau added, she had to find a way to live a life with the disorder.

While Trudeau advocates for a healthy diet complimented with exercise and meditation as starting points in both a physically and emotionally healthy lifestyle, she has taken to advocating for individuals suffering from mental illness, as well as their friends and families.

“My motivation for it was two-fold. One, I just had extraordinary gratitude because I had struggled with mental illness most of my adult life, without proper treatment available. When I lost my child, and then my husband, I just completely lost it. The help I got changed my whole path, and that’s what I’m advocating,” Trudeau said.

“And I became an advocate for people with mental illness, to help them, their families and their communities because I’ve been through it all. I want to turn people’s anger and frustration toward their family members who are troubled into compassion,” she added.

Life as a young prime minister’s wife was a lonely one, and Trudeau used its ups and downs to rationalize the rollercoaster of emotions she was on.

“Because I was a very young, 22-year-old wife of a prime minister, I thought my mood swings were because one night I was dressed in the prettiest dress, floating in my husband’s arms, travelling, when mostly, I was alone. He worked all the time; it was a quiet life,” she said.

Trudeau explained that because of recent advancements and new diagnostic tools such as brain mapping, early detection, improved treatment and understanding of mental illness is possible.

For her, this wasn’t the case.

“Nothing really worked for me. The pharmaceuticals made me feel as though I had had a chemical lobotomy. I wasn’t myself. Too much medication isolates people as much as the illness does,” she said.

“Through later treatment and therapy, I was helped to understand that nutrition and how you treat your body is so essential. Those things are all our choices and what I’m recommending is being mindful of those choices and then your life will be balanced.”

But just because diagnostic and treatment advancements are increasing understanding, it doesn’t mean the social stigma often associated with mental illness has subsided, Trudeau added.

“The stigma is huge and if this was understood as a brain issue that can be corrected, it can stop. The conversation has to get started. We have lived in shame, isolation and tremendous discrimination and that has to stop,” she said, noting that the struggles of mental illness are still different for women and men.

“Women have traditionally been more open with emotions – we’re much easier to diagnose and treat whereas men really try to hide their frustration and feelings and sometimes they’re simmering and ready to blow. They don’t have the same release the community gives women.”

Whatever your gender or situation may be, Trudeau said, it is important to recognize symptoms of mental illness, not just in yourself but in your friends and family as well, and make a choice to do something about it.

“It’s about making a choice and getting the support you need – whether it means quickly calling a friend, cooking up a meal for family – do something positive to makes you feel purposeful. It’s the losing of hope that gets us down.”

Margaret Trudeau delivers the 2012 Faculty of Health Science Distinguished Lecture, entitled Exploring Mental Health Issues, at 5 p.m. Thursday, March 29 in Alumni Hall. Admission is free.