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After his son Cameron died by suicide in 1995, at age 29, former federal finance minister Michael Wilson dedicated his life to raising awareness of mental health issues. As part of the push, he teamed up with Bill Wilkerson in 2000 to lobby the highest echelons of Canadian business to tackle mental health problems in their workplaces.

In the wake of Mr. Wilson’s death on Feb. 10, Mr. Wilkerson, executive chairman of Mental Health International, reflects on the star power that the former politician and executive brought to the campaign – and reveals what they were working on next.

When you and Michael Wilson launched your campaign in 2000, was it hard to get anyone’s attention?

Very much so. I had spent nearly two years trying to get business people to meet with me, and a senior executive suggested I get in touch with Michael. I called him up out of the blue, and he said he’d like to get involved. Our very first meeting of any significance was chaired by Bill Davis, the former premier of Ontario. What I found was that Mike Wilson’s name and Bill Davis’s name opened up the big banks for us.

Once you got inside, what did you learn?

Almost to a person, the executives we got in to see had mental health concerns at home with nephews, or daughters, or sons or wives. We had one executive who said he was thinking about suicide a year before. We had another chief executive who said he was worried about a colleague, whose wife was hiding in the closet and was refusing to come out. Another had a brother with serious schizophrenia and the executive lived with the guilt of having greater success than his smarter brother.

What was your message to this crowd?

We decided we wanted to go in there as business people, talking to business people about a business problem. These people were already giving a lot of money to research. What we needed them to do was to understand that there was more to mental health than doctors and nurses and hospitals. We needed to set up preventative measures, because job stress was becoming a major instigator of mental illness. And Mike was able to translate data into the human experience and into business consequences – in believable, clear, credible terms.

We’ve come a long way over two decades, but is it still frustrating to see a lot of people in denial?

People still don’t grasp the fundamental nature of mental illness – that it isn’t a crazy person running around in their underwear. It is a normal person suffering a biological unrest in their brain that is damaged by their experiences in life.

And in the workplace specifically, what hurdles do we face?

Both Mike and I were growing impatient. As each executive that we had originally engaged retired, they didn’t leave a note behind telling their successors about this stuff. So we had to start all over again. The junior people coming up the ranks were not bringing the same instincts with the about the vulnerability of people. I’m getting worried that we’re regressing.

Before Mr. Wilson died, you had started working on a new report about mental health in the era of artificial intelligence. What is the thrust of it?

AI can be beneficial. But we need to be careful about too many jobs disappearing into the hands of robots. If we repeat what went on in the 1990s, when the rapid and vast infusion of voice mail and e-mail and personal computers resulted in front-line layoffs, the consequences for mental health will be severe.

This interview has been edited and condensed.