Margaret Trudeau shares highs and lows of mental health journey

Margaret Trudeau speaking at podium
Tuesday, September 19, 2017 - 3:17pm
Sharon Aschaiek

The importance of facing and treating mental illness was underscored yesterday in a riveting talk at the University of Toronto Mississauga by Margaret Trudeau as she shared a candid, often-humorous account of her journey with bipolar disorder.

Delivering UTM’s annual Snider Lecture, the Canadian icon and mental health advocate described the euphoric highs and dark lows she experienced between her 20s and 40s when she at first didn’t know about, and then ignored, her diagnosis of manic depression (now called bipolar disorder). Addressing a sold-out crowd of about 700 UTM students, faculty, alumni and local community members at the Instructional Central’s main lecture theatre, Trudeau, 69, explained how the disorder affected her life with her first husband, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and their three sons, and how the pressures of being a politician’s wife aggravated her condition.

She described how sad and disengaged she felt after the birth of her second son, Sacha, on Christmas day, 1973. She only learned much later that those with bipolar have a much higher chance of getting post-partum depression. It didn’t help matters when a psychiatrist she saw downplayed her symptoms as baby blues. As happens with bipolar, her mood then shifted to the other extreme of mania. While with Pierre on the campaign trail in 1974, she recalled having boundless energy to deal with the constant travel and the huge dinner parties.

“You think of yourself as superwoman…you can accomplish anything. But you behave impulsively because you can’t make rational, reasonable choices,” she says. “You can’t see what you’re doing to the people around you, because when you’re in mania it’s all about you.”

Trudeau went on to describe additional episodes of depression and mania, using marijuana to soothe herself – which she later learned can worsen bipolar symptoms – and taking medicines that left her feeling listless. She also spoke about the many joys of her life, including how she and Pierre fell in love on their first date, how much she enjoyed being a mother of five – she has two additional children from a second marriage – and her passion for photography. But her bipolar disorder took another terrible turn in 2000, when it left her unable to cope with the death of Pierre, and the death two years earlier of their youngest son, Michel, who perished in an avalanche at age 23.

“I lost my mind completely,” Trudeau said. “I couldn’t decide if I should comb my hair, brush my teeth, eat or get out of bed. I stopped doing everything.”

It was a tipping point that compelled Trudeau to finally face her illness. A combination of effective medication and cognitive behavioural therapy helped her regain control of her life. In 2006, she publicly announced her condition and become a strong advocate for reducing the stigma of mental illness. She wrote about her experience with bipolar in the 2010 book Changing My Mind, which was available for purchase last night along with one of her other four published books, The Time of Your Life. Trudeau has also been an active philanthropist who currently serves on the UBC Mental Health Institute’s executive advisory board, and is the former honorary president of the charitable NGO WaterAid. Among her main joys today are spending time with her eight grandchildren.

Yesterday’s lecture was also a celebration of UTM’s 50th anniversary, and included a traditional Aboriginal welcome by Cat Criger, UTM’s Indigenous Elder in Residence, a presentation of a spoken word poem about masculinity and mental health by musician and UTM student Wali Shah, and a closing summary by UTM vice-president and principal Ulrich Krull about how UTM works to support students with mental health problems.

In her final remarks, Trudeau emphasized the importance of individuals taking a proactive approach to dealing with their mental illness.

“It’s about finding the courage to say, ‘Help, I don’t feel my best self now. How can I get better?’”