Margaret Trudeau Calls Indigenous Mental Health Crisis 'Our Shame Forever'

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Margaret Trudeau, the former wife of one prime minister and mother of another, has spent the past decade building her own legacy as one of Canada's most outspoken mental-health advocates.

After becoming international tabloid fodder during the 1970s – a time when most assumed the young mother of three was just a hippie wild child who ditched Pierre and the kids to party at Studio 54 with Andy Warhol and hang with the Rolling Stones – she revealed in 2006 that her manic behaviour was the result of undiagnosed bipolar disorder.

margaret trudeau studio 54
Margaret Trudeau confides in artist Andy Warhol at the Studio 54 Princess Tennis Ball, New York, 1977.

Since opening up about her personal struggles, Trudeau has worked tirelessly to change how Canadians think about mental health.

"I've been crisscrossing the country, speaking in small villages, towns, cities, wherever I can to try and break the stigma that people have, the fear they have of seeking treatments and getting help if they are suffering from a mental disorder," she told HuffPost Canada backstage at last month's We Day youth activism rally in Toronto, an event being broadcast on MTV Canada at 11 p.m. EST and 8 p.m. PST on Nov. 28.

"I've been crisscrossing the country, speaking in small villages, towns, cities, wherever I can to try and break the stigma."

Still flush from speaking to 20,000 eager students ("most of the speaking that I'm doing is to people whose minds are closed"), Trudeau spoke about her own mental-health challenges and how treatment and society's views have changed since she was young.

Canada's first grandma offered advice on helping children cope and addressed the suicide crisis gripping Indigenous communities, a situation she called "our shame forever." She also discussed the pressure she's putting on her son on this issue and the leadership similarities and differences between Justin and Pierre.

margaret trudeau we dayMargaret Trudeau seen on stage at WE Day in October, 2016, in Toronto. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

You've been using your spotlight to raise awareness of mental issues for some time but now you can nudge the people in charge…

Oh, indeed. That is a conversation about mental health that Justin and I have had for years, of course, and he is committed to trying to improve services to Canadians because it is one of our big issues. It's the highest cost to our national health economy.

The issue of mental illness hits every family.

Obviously, stigma is a big challenge but if I have a cold, I go to the doctor and I don't pay any money. But if I have a mental issue that requires me to go to a therapist, that does cost money. Are you pushing in any way for mental health to be part of universal healthcare?

Because I'm not a Member of the government, just an activist, oh, yes, I dream in Technicolor. What I would like is there to be mental-health clinics that we can put in our health cards and get exactly the services we need. It's costly to recover in Canada now. But people will pay because they want their family to be well. They want each person to be able to be the best they can be. And mental illness takes you away from your life.

But only the people that have the money can afford to pay for it.

Unless you're very sick then you get a psychiatrist and that's paid for.

Right, but that might be too late.

No, of course. We don't want that. We want early intervention. The secret is to nip any mental disorder in the bud. As soon as you're not feeling yourself, reach out and get some help because you can quickly get better. If you get stuck in it, it's so hard to get out.


HuffPost Canada has been running this "Frame of Mind" series that your Sophie [Trudeau] contributed to about mental health and youth. How can we better help our kids?

Parents have to consider three things that'll keep your children mentally healthy... making sure they get a good night's sleep, really good nutrition – kale, not doughnuts – and that they go outside, that they play and exercise.

I think it's also important to have structure in a child's life. To have chores that they must do, have responsibility within the family. To be looking outside of themselves. To be starting to consider how the rest of the world feels, put themselves in other people's shoes. But I think that Canadians on the whole raise their children very well.

"Compulsion is how you get into a suicide. You're not planning it. You don't think about it. It's just something that you quickly do without accessing reason, without accessing your deep value system, because your brain is troubled."

There is a mental-health crisis happening right now in indigenous communities. Another 10-year old committed suicide recently. What can we be doing? What can Justin be doing?

We have to go off and listen to them. We have to listen to the elders. We have to listen to the people in the communities, to understand how they see how it's going wrong, what the children are missing, why there isn't hope. Why there isn't a light in them that makes them want to live, a curiosity, a sense of wonder – where has that gone?

Well, we look at their living situation, their housing, their education, even lack of clean drinking water. There are so many social issues that have to be addressed, and it's not something that you can put a Band-Aid on. It's something we have to get deeply into. And certainly, as in all cases, it's giving them respect, giving them a consideration for themselves and how they can become the best that they can be.


One of the interesting things out of psychiatry is that the anti-depressants, the serotonin – I take drugs that take you out of depression – also stop compulsion. And compulsion is how you get into a suicide. You're not planning it. You don't think about it. It's just something that you quickly do without accessing reason, without accessing your deep value system, because your brain is troubled.

So certainly letting them understand that there is help to prevent this, but then to look at the root causes and to get people living again with dignity and with love in their communities, and not this hopelessness, feeling that they're on the outside looking into our beautiful society in Canada.

It's been our shame forever.

So why has this taken so long to deal with?

I don't know. It's certainly a problem that I've been aware of all my life. And the more we are aware of it, the more ashamed we are that it's gone on so long. But one of the secrets of recovering from anything, of getting better, is wanting it yourself, of choosing to access help, choosing to be part of the solution instead of staying in your place. And I think the opportunities to access help are just not there for people in the north.

"The truth is, you can't fix yourselves from a mental disorder, you can't no matter how hard you try, because mental illness is wrong thinking."

We're looking into TeleHealth out at UBC [University of British Columbia], and it's a very good idea, being able to have psychiatrists have sessions with patients in the far north just through a screen. There are lots of modern ways with technology that we can offer help.

The truth is, you can't fix yourselves from a mental disorder, you can't no matter how hard you try, because mental illness is wrong thinking. So you need to have a third party.

You went through mental-health issues when you were younger. How do you think your experience would have been different if you were 30 years younger?

Oh my goodness, how different it would have been because I can tell you that the medication now is superior, there's just no question. The medicine that they used to give us, it was numbing. It put us in place, but it gave us no life. It gave us no sparkle. It was a dulling, dulling thing.

Whereas now with the new research in neuroscience, mood stabilizers, which are necessary to keep people out of mania, are so effective. They really can allow you to calm down that rapid firing in your brain that doesn't let you access reason.

I went through a lot of treatment to try and get hold of my bipolar. But the treatment, I thought, was worse than the illness. Until the illness proved that no, it was way worse. I never thought there was correction before. I just thought I was going to be falling and lifting and falling and lifting all my life. But to find balance, to find a real life, only came from getting this serious help. And wanting it, wanting to be better.

margaret trudeau pierre justinPrime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his wife; Margaret; but their 2-year-old son; Justin; was a little overwhelmed by it all. (Photo by Boris Spremo/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

And lastly, as nobody has a better perspective than you, how do Justin and Pierre differ in their leadership qualities?

Can I say night and day? Pierre was very much a Jesuit intellectual, caught very much in his own mind, in his own philosophy, in his own value system. He was a bit of an aesthete, he was an inward person. He would rather spend his time thinking than chit-chatting.

My darling Justin seems to be about the opposite. He has an incredibly fine mind, but it's fuelled by people, by thoughts that people bring to him. So he's out there, whereas Pierre was more a philosopher king on top of the mountain. Justin has an ability to reach into people. He's very kind.

margaret trudeau Justin Trudeau is embraced by his mother Margaret Trudeau as he arrives to give his victory speech after the federal election in Montreal, on Oct. 19, 2015. (REUTERS/Jim Young)

Why do you think both of them, unlike other prime ministers, have captured the public's imagination in this way?

Pierre did because he was a real change-maker. He was offering deep social change. He gave us the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He was a very, very thoughtful prime minister. He applied all his intellect into giving us the "just society."

Well, he and I also had Justin and now he’s the head of our society. And he's walking the walk. Justin is going to be able to enact all the dreams that Pierre had, the visions that Pierre had, for a diverse, equal country where there was such deep respect for each other, compassion, all the things that we need in our society.

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