Transcript – Episode 48: A chat with Ambassador Bob Rae on mental health

Welcome to the GAC Files, a podcast about the people, issues and ideas driving Global Affairs Canada.

And now introducing your host, Global Affairs Canada’s deputy minister of International Trade, John Hannaford.

John Hannaford: Okay, good morning, everyone. It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to talk a little bit with one of our colleagues, Bob Rae, who is our current ambassador to the UN.  Bob is obviously an extremely well-known person to all of us, and we could obviously talk about any number of topics. But I’m really pleased that he wanted to discuss with us, today, some of the issues around mental health, which is a topic that he has discussed in the past in a number of fora, and I think it’s one that’s particularly timely for us as we are all living through the experiences that we’re living through right now. So, Bob, first of all, welcome.

Bob Rae: Thank you, John.

John Hannaford: It’s great to get the chance to chat with you.

Bob Rae: Good to be with you. It’s a pleasure.

John Hannaford: Look, I just am interested, just off the top, as to why this is a topic that you’ve been quite public about. It’s one that is of personal interest to me as well. I think there’s a—as I’ve said before in this podcast—I think there’s a real institutional interest for us here to be serious about issues around mental health. But I’m interested in your experience and why this is one that you’ve attached importance to.

Bob Rae: Well, I guess, at a certain level, as a teenager and growing up, I was always very interested in people’s emotions and talking about the mental health in my own family’s history. My father’s sister had a serious series of episodes which were not talked about a lot but certainly were part of our family life. But I think the thing that really made me wake up was my own experience. I mean, I was going along well at Oxford University. I had just finished my degree, my MPhil. I was starting to work on a doctorate. I’d been going back and forth between Canada and the U.K., and I think that kind of triggered something—I also had an emotional relationship that didn’t work out—and all those things kind of came together. I was back in England and I remember when it happened, it was September of 1972, and I kind of felt like I hit a wall.

I was living with a couple of friends and they noticed that I was staying in my room a lot, that I wasn’t getting out. When I spoke, I was quite soft-spoken and quite nervous. And what it really reflected was what I realized was just I’d completely lost my sense of confidence and my sense of bearings. I became very anxious about going outside. I couldn’t go to libraries, every single book I read sort of intimidated me. I had previously been very self-confident, very sure of myself—and as I realized later, probably too sure of myself—and I really went into a pretty bad fog, I don’t know how to describe it. Except it wasn’t just feeling sad or feeling uncertain. I realized that I was depressed.

Luckily, one of the people that I was living with at the time was a doctor, or a woman who was studying medicine, who was a very good friend of mine. And she said, “I think you’re depressed. I think you have to see somebody.” So, I wasn’t really prepared to do that. So of course, I did what many people who are avoiding things do:  I traveled. So, I came back to New York to see my parents and they noticed that I really wasn’t myself at all, so I was unhappy with them for being on my case. So, I left again and I went up to stay with a friend, Michael Ignatieff, in Boston. And it took me a long time to kind of come to grips with the fact that I was really needing help.

So finally, I ended up in London again and I went to see a therapist, and he began to talk to me about getting me to talk about myself, getting me to talk about what I was facing, what I was struggling with. And I realized, you know, he said, “Look, you’ve had a kind of a breakdown. It’s not the end of the world. It’s the end of whatever you thought you were in before. But you’ve got to try to build something new.” And we went through it and I stayed with him as a therapist for several months and then decided that, you know, he said, “Well, what do you want to do?” I said, “Well, I think I need to get back to Canada and get into what I think I really want to do, and that is to go to law school.” So finally, I ended up doing that.

In the meantime, I’d been working a lot in a community legal aid centre. I did the walking therapy, and the talking therapy, and therapy by doing. And I was given a lot of space. I have to give my family, my parents, full credit. They gave me a lot of space. And basically, if you looked at a resumé, you’d say, “Well, that’s 2 years. You’ve kind of been on a journey.” And frankly, I was very lucky. I had the time and space to be able to do it. It took longer than probably, you know—sometimes you look back and say, “Gee, that was a long time to be wandering in this sort of really strange fog that I was in.” But I think I got a lot of insight in the process. I understood myself better. I explored parts of my previous relationships and ambitions that I’d had and things that I’d wanted to do and became much more at ease with myself, with my own sense of where I wanted to go.

But the therapist said something to me towards the end of our time together. He said, “Look, I know you think that this is over now. You’re cured. You’re all better,” he said. “But this is going to be with you for your whole life. You’re going to be different because of what you’ve experienced and you’re going to be aware of yourself and you’re going to be more aware of others.” And actually, he said, “You’re going to be a better person.” He said, “Forget about your CV,” forget about… I was very self-conscious of the fact that people would ask me, “What are you doing these days?” People put you on the spot. You think that’s a simple question to answer, but actually, it was really difficult. But luckily, I had a lot of very understanding people around me who supported me and helped me get through it.

And so, I did. I’ve had a couple of recurrences. When my brother died, my brother David died, I went into a deep spiral. I was leader of the provincial party at the time, the NDP. I was in the House, the Legislature, every day. And I went to see a therapist in Toronto, and I was very self-conscious of the fact that I was back again. And he said, “No, it’s perfectly understandable. You’ve gone through a terrible trauma. You’ve watched your brother die. You’ve tried to help him with a bone-marrow transplant. You’ve been very emotionally caught up.” And he said, “You’ve still got ways to go to understand the emotional side of life.” And I think that was a big help, when he told me that it was okay to go through these bouts again. I haven’t had a serious episode since, but I’m very aware of the potential and I’m also constantly aware of the challenges that other people are facing. In that sense, I think it’s probably made me, maybe, kinder, not only to myself, but perhaps a little kinder to others as well.

John Hannaford: Bob, you went through that, particularly that second episode, very much in the public eye.

Bob Rae: Yes.

John Hannaford: So, one of the concerns that I think we have, as leaders in any organization, is how we make sure we deal with the question of stigma around mental health. But, of course, you were right, it’s sort of the crucible of a public life, where it kind of brings into the starkest relief questions of stigma. What was your experience there? How did you find that sort of public scrutiny complicated or maybe helped you deal with the situation?

Bob Rae: Well, I have to say, at the time of my second episode, I didn’t discuss it with anybody except my family. By that time, I was married, I had 3 children. And I had already, in conversation with people and in other ways, I think people knew that I’d gone through a period. I mean, I didn’t hide it. I didn’t deny it. I didn’t sort of attempt to pretend that it hadn’t happened. But...I think it’s hard if you’re at the very top—I mean, I don’t think you can say that you’re Leader of the Opposition and you’re getting some help with something that you don’t have to disclose, that it’s something that you’re just going through, and you get out the other side—I think the thing that I felt very strongly was that we’re always better off with people who’ve been through episodes and who understand it. And as I read more and read more at the time—and you read about all kinds of people who’ve had episodes or periods of time when they weren’t sure what was going on and they’ve had quite, in some cases, quite serious bouts of depression or anxiety—I think the harder instances are the truly psychotic episodes, which we now know do come and go. I mean, people do have them and then they get much, much better. And actually, as a social worker in London, a woman that I knew very well who had a psychotic episode and then came out of it, and she came out of it and it happens. I mean, I think we have this mythology of mental health that you never get better. Well, the actual, the reality of the situation is that in most cases, you actually do get better. And in some cases, you don’t, but in many, many cases you do.

John Hannaford: As a leader, what did you learn from your experiences, for you as an individual, but also for your organizations?

Bob Rae: Well, for me, as an individual, I think I learned some important lessons. First, that we must be kind. But above all, we must be kind to ourselves. We have to recognize that we’re not perfect, that we make mistakes. It’s not the end of the world. We have to have a sense of compassion towards ourselves, first of all, and it starts with us, it starts with our own situation. But then we have to learn how to really understand that everyone we meet has problems, everyone has challenges, everyone has a battle in life, that life isn’t easy for anyone, life is difficult and complex for everyone.

And as a politician, I became premier of Ontario in 1990, and I put a real focus on mental health situations and trying to change the province’s policy a little bit, in a good direction. And I think we did some good things. Unfortunately, not all the efforts we made have continued, but a lot has. And it continues for me, the work that I did at the federal level, that I did in the work with Indigenous people in my province, across the country.

So for me, and now at the UN, it’s something, I’m the head of a friends of mental health group, which means that in UN activities, we’re trying to make an effort. And in my work as head of mission, I start every meeting I have with my group—that is, I want to reinforce the idea—I stress the importance of mental health. If you have problems, you need to be given the help you need. And I think that, with COVID-19, I’ve experienced enough of the difficulties that people have, and then the importance of making an effort to deal with those problems.

Indeed, I think that the experience I had changed my ideas, changed my work as a leader and changed how much I talk directly to people to say, “Look, I had depression, I had anxiety. I understand it.” It’s not a minor thing, we shouldn’t minimize the importance of this experience. But we still have to face the reality of the situation, that it can improve, things can change. And always give people a little hope, a little sense that, with solidarity that we can show toward one another, we can make significant progress.

John Hannaford: You know, Bob, you mentioned earlier your own sort of personal history with respect to mental illness in the family, and I think it’s one of those issues that’s of particular importance in the foreign service community where, you know, we obviously, in any work situation, you’re sort of conscious of people’s private lives and the challenges they face. But I think it’s particularly true in the foreign service where we’re asking people to move their children and move their families to all sorts of different situations. And I’m kind of interested in your reflections as to how we, as an organization, can best kind of support people. You know, it’s particularly pronounced right now during the COVID situation, but it’s generally an issue. And I am mindful of this, I’ve moved my family around the world, and I know you were the product of a similar sort of upbringing. You’re now in our system. What would you think we could be doing to be particularly supportive of our community in its broadest sense?

Bob Rae: Well, I think one thing that’s true of me—and I didn’t know it at the time, but I only really realized it when I had my traumatic experience with depression—and that was that, while I handled moving around a lot really well, when I moved around a lot as a kid—and we didn’t go to any hardship places. I mean, I was in Washington and London and Geneva and came back to Canada. So, I can’t say that—I did not have a rough life. That’s not what I’m saying. But it’s interesting because out of my experience at the International School, in hearing from my friends in the International School over many years, a lot of our classmates had trouble when they came out of university. They weren’t sure where they belonged. They weren’t sure which country was theirs. They weren’t sure about some fundamental issues about their own sort of identity. And I know that that’s something that I think is endemic in diplomatic kids. I think it’s a real challenge for kids growing up to know, “Where do you fit in?”, “Do I fit in here?”, “Do I fit in there?”—you’re going from school to school. I think it’s a developmental issue for kids, but I also think it’s for their parents, I think it’s challenging. It’s quite competitive work. You’re constantly competing for the post you want to go on. You’re competing with other people who came into the service at the same time as you did. And temporarily, they may be doing better than you, or you may be doing better than them. You may have chosen a particular focus that you’re no longer that interested in. There’s all kinds of, what I would call, sort of occupational trauma that affect diplomats. And you’ve got to sort of say, “Okay, how can we provide people with the kind of understanding that it’s okay to put all these problems on the table, it’s okay to throw all this stuff out there?”

I think that we tend—all of us as human beings—we tend to internalize a lot of this stuff. We should be saying, “Look, there’s nothing wrong with having mental health challenges and being a diplomat.” In fact, it’s normal. All we’re doing is admitting to them now. I mean, it’s not as if this is some new thing that somehow the great generation who worked in the forties and fifties and sixties didn’t have a problem. Of course, they had a problem. I think alcoholism is a problem. I think, broadly speaking, all these things are issues that affect people of a generation and affect ours in a different way as well.

So, I think we just have to be sensitive about what are the things that go there. I mean, even something like evaluations. The evaluation process in the department is extremely formal, quite rigorous, very tough. I don’t know. I mean, if you’re a lawyer working in a law firm, you don’t get evaluated in that way. All that happens is you make a little bit less money and you get mad about it, but then you realize you’re making so much more money than anybody else. But I mean, these are the things that we need to talk about more. Like, what is a specific program for people who are in this occupation? We talk about it in the military because the traumas that they face are very, very real and very public and now we’re beginning to really understand them, but I think we have to broaden that sensitivity, really, across the public service and certainly in the diplomatic service. I think it would make a lot of sense. I would make the observation that we’re better at saying we really understand the problems you’re going through. We’re better at saying it than we are actually doing enough about it. And right now, I think there’s an issue about how much are we really doing in practice to show that we practice what we preach about mental health. And I think that’s going to be an ongoing challenge for us in the foreign service.

John Hannaford: Yeah, I agree with that. I mean, I think—I guess I think a few things—we’ve done a few of these conversations now in part to highlight some of the services that are available to people. And we are seeing that those are being used. We do have counselors who are available to people around the world, including our locally engaged staff. And that’s something that isn’t new, but is, you know, we’ve augmented to some degree and I think is really important. But it’s also critically important, as you say, that this isn’t just a sort of symbolic exercise where we’re simply paying lip service to a problem, but that we’re actually collectively kind of trying our best to deal with the problems as they arise. And that’s partially through trying to make our systems as humane as possible. But I think it’s also through making sure that the leaders through the system are attuned to the challenges that people are going through and are doing their best to try and accommodate people as they’re going through pretty difficult circumstances, particularly right now.

And I guess, you know, I was reflecting on this before we got a chance to start chatting, and I think it was Chris Hadfield who said, relatively recently, that one of the things he wished he’d known when he was 21 is that everyone is struggling. Which I think is a profound thing. And I think it’s why I’m grateful for you being as open as you are about these conversations, because I think it’s really, really important for people who have been successful to talk about the challenges that they faced. I just think it’s critical for, particularly for young people, to be able to see you can be going through these things, and you will get to the other side of it, and you’ll learn from it and you’ll be better for it in some ways. I mean, I think your reflections on leadership, I think are really important.

Bob Rae: Well, I think it’s also interesting to me. I think I feel quite positive about the fact that when I talked about this quite a bit, different reporters said, “I heard you have a history of mental illness.” I said, “Yeah, I do. You want to talk about it?” And the reporters would be very taken aback. I said, “Okay. So, I have talked about it with people, I did early on in my political career.” And there were people who said to me, “Don’t do that, just shut up about it because nobody wants to vote for a crazy person.” And I said, “Well, I think they probably do. I think you’re wrong.” I think that people actually have more understanding and compassion. Michael Kirby said when he wrote his report [The Health of Canadians – The Federal Role, October 2002]—which really I think gave a national prominence to mental health as part of the health-care system—Michael Kirby said, “You know, everybody has, everybody knows somebody or is themself or has a family member who is going through this. So why do we keep on pretending that it’s just something that we have to keep buried in a corner somewhere?” And I thought he was right. And I certainly feel that way. I mean, I know there are people who might take me and say, “Well, that’s just Bob being emotional again” or “Well, you know, he’s not totally reliable.” But I’m unreliable for so many other reasons that I don’t I think that’s the big one. But it’s also because I think I feel in my own life that I’m really strongest when I’m not trying to be perfect, when I encourage people to make...I say, “Make mistakes. You’re better off making mistakes than not making mistakes.” You’re better off doing something even if it’s the wrong thing to do and then figure out, “Well, what have I learned, what have I learned from this?” And learn how to apologize and learn how to figure out how to stop doing something wrong that you’ve been doing. But I think it really has helped me a lot to, I think, manage my own life a little better, mainly. And I think, you know, try to help steer people in good directions when they’re being hard on themselves. Because I think a lot of what is the most common neurosis that people have stems from this exaggerated sense of the need to be perfect. And I think that’s something that… I’m pretty well cured of that one.

John Hannaford: Okay. Well, many, many thanks, Bob.

Bob Rae: Thank you.

John Hannaford: It’s really a pleasure to have this opportunity. Do you have any final comments on this topic?

Bob Rae: No. I think that, for me, the great enemy of mental health is a sense that you have to be perfect, perfection. And frankly, I think perfection is the enemy of good, it’s the enemy of possibility, it’s the enemy of the need to, as I said, above all, be kind. We must, we must love each other, and we must love ourselves, and we must be kind. And I think that I don’t always practice that as much as I should. I think that certainly in political battles, I’ve not always been kind. Sometimes I have a tendency to want to be clever rather than a tendency to want to be kind. But I think as you get older, you learn how to put things in perspective. And I think kindness is the road to wisdom.

John Hannaford: I think that’s a profound point to end on. Thanks so much, Bob. Really appreciate it.

Bob Rae: Thank you. Thanks so much. Nice to see you.

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