Wilson urges graduates to dispel stigma of mental illness

Once Canada’s dour minister of finance under prime minister Brian Mulroney, Michael Wilson showed a different side of himself  as he shared the tragedy of his son’s suicide in a compelling speech to graduates at convocation ceremonies for York’s Schulich School of Business on June 17.

Right: From left, Michael Wilson receives an honorary doctor of laws degree from Chancellor Peter Cory and President and Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden

York conferred on Wilson an honorary doctor of laws degree for his success as a business leader and member of parliament and, above all, for his work as a spokesperson for mental illness where he has worked to remove the stigma that surrounds the little-understood disease and its many forms .

“Many Canadians do not receive treatment, many reject it,” Wilson said, “but… the most debilitating characteristic of mental illness is the stigma….I’ll never forget [our son] Cameron telling me, ‘Dad, don’t tell anybody where I am, ‘cause if they find out, I’ll never get another job again.’”

In her citation to convocation, Professor and Senate Chair Patricia Bradshaw noted Wilson’s remarkable career and contributions to society as a public servant, minister of the crown and member of Canada’s financial community.

“For these contributions alone he should be honoured, but it is the field of mental health that has particularly benefited from his vision and leadership,” Bradshaw said, adding that his passionate concern for the mentally ill and his work as a selfless advocate “represents a level of commitment and balance between a professional career and community responsibility that our graduates should strive to attain.”

Currently Chair of UBS Global Asset Management (Canada), Wilson said his voluntarism opened up many avenues for success, including his entry into politics. Wilson has also been a member of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health – where he played a major role in a fundraising campaign that brought in more than $11 million – the Toronto-Peel Mental Health Implementation Task Force and the Neuroscience Canada Partnership. In 2005 he was appointed special advisor to the federal health minister on mental health in the federal government workplace. “His efforts have motivated business leaders across the country to become active in public service,” noted Bradshaw.

Wilson said his first job as a volunteer for the Canadian Cancer Society in 1967 helped take him in new directions he didn’t anticipate and introduced him to many politicians who encouraged him to run for office. “They were good people, quite unlike the stereotype portrayed by the media or the figures you see on TV,” he said.

He told his fellow graduates that political life was a “transforming experience” unlike anything he knew on Bay Street. After leaving politics in 1993, he chose to concentrate his volunteer efforts on mental illness, a charity, he said, that people often decline to volunteer for because of the stigma attached to the illness. His sporadic efforts became a total commitment after his son was diagnosed with depression and later committed suicide.

 “That act had a profound impact on our family and his friends. It changed my life,” he said.

Wilson paid tribute to his son and to the many survivors of mental illness for their heroism in facing the debilitating effects of the disease, saying their example inspires him to volunteer and encourage others to talk more openly about mental illness. “But most of all,” he said, “it’s because of that great feeling when someone who has been touched by mental illness says ‘thank you for speaking out for those of us who can’t.’” He urged Schulich graduates to make a lifelong commitment to volunteering, saying, “I assure you, the rewards are boundless, your life will be enriched.”