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BCE Inc. CEO George Cope

Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Bell Canada president George Cope knows how crucial a support structure can be for those suffering from the debilitating effects of mental illness: It was only with additional help that his own mother was able to grapple successfully with depression.

With that deeply personal understanding of the issue, Mr. Cope has launched an unprecedented, $50-million initiative spread over four years and various national projects. It aims to help spark a debate about how Canada can better deal with mental illness, from the impact the issue has on ordinary Canadians and the national economy to how politicians and corporate leaders can use their money more wisely. Bell Canada's four-year project, which one mental-health advocate called a "seismic breakthrough," launched in the nation's capital on Tuesday with an initial $1-million investment for tele-psychiatry at the Royal Ottawa Hospital.

"What we've tried to do is come out and talk quite openly about it," Mr. Cope said in an interview. "My mother was quite open about me mentioning that she has suffered from mental illness in the past. She was really supportive of seeing Bell take these actions, but also recognized that if what we do helps one Canadian, that's a venture worth pursuing from her perspective."

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But mental illness is a matter of concern for more than just those directly affected. It is a critical task looming ahead of employers and the stewards of the country's economy, for whom mental health is a multibillion-dollar issue. It is estimated that a single employee on short-term disability due to a mental illness can cost a company upward of $18,000. That immense economic toll, magnified through Canada's work force, amounts to roughly $51-billion a year in costs and productivity loss, with roughly $34-billion erased in Ontario alone.

Mr. Cope, head of the country's largest communications company, is a literal titan of industry at 6 foot 7. And mental-health advocates hope the willingness of such a high-profile CEO and company to be open about - and fund - the sensitive issue may help spur a frank dialogue about mental health and its impact on society.

In addition to the big investment, Mr. Cope is calling on the nation's politicians and business leaders to begin funding research and support mechanisms for mental health in a way that matches the issue's staggering impact - affecting roughly one in five Canadians.

"The area has clearly been underfunded, from a government perspective, from a charitable donation perspective and also, I think, from the corporate sector," Mr. Cope said.

Mary Deacon, who will help lead Bell's new mental-health initiative, lost one brother to suicide only two weeks after she gave birth to her daughter in 1991. She lost a second brother, who also suffered from depression, in the same manner shortly after the first tragic experience drove her into the CEO seat at Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. Over the decade she headed the organization, she said, she saw a growing willingness in corporate leaders to fund mental-health initiatives.

"I've seen a gradual improvement over the years and I think what Bell has done today is a real game-changer," Ms. Deacon said. But, she added, "the story here is much bigger than one person, or even one company."

Michael Wilson, the former Canadian ambassador to the United States and a long-time advocate for mental-health issues, shares her hope that the move by Bell to promote dialogue could be a watershed. "We continue to associate mental illness with some secret shame," Mr. Wilson said. "It does not receive the attention or support it should."

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Mr. Wilson, whose son Cameron suffered from severe depression and died by suicide, said the message implicit in the $50-million commitment is powerful: "Bell is saying that mental health matters and we're going to do something about it."

Mental-health advocates hope that feeling will spread. "Their decision to pledge $50-million for mental health - it's a game changer, it's a seismic breakthrough in a sector that represents about 15 per cent of [those with] disabilities but only garners about 5 per cent of health-care funding," said Catherine Zahn, the current president and CEO of CAMH. "It's a stunning statement to Canadians who are trying to live well with illnesses."

It may also be a strong statement to businesses sitting on the sidelines. Bill Wilkerson, founder of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, said it is encouraging to see a large company make such a commitment. He said Bell is following in the footsteps of Great-West Life (the large insurance company funds the Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace) and Canada Post Corp. (which created the Canada Post Foundation for Mental Health). "We now have the post office, the phone company and the insurance company at the table," he said.

In a separate announcement on Tuesday, the Canada Post Foundation for Mental Health announced more than $1.5-million in grants for 32 non-profit organizations that provide support and treatment programs for those with mental health issues.

But Mr. Wilkerson said there is still one really important player missing - Canada's largest employer, the federal government. He said the time has come for the public sector to follow the private sector's lead and start investing in a healthier workplace.

Bell's effort to encourage dialogue and donations has found an iconic spokesperson in speed skater and cyclist Clara Hughes, a six-time Olympic medalist. Mr. Cope told Ms. Hughes, whom Bell sponsors, about the company's plan last spring. She immediately decided to jump aboard, partly because of her earlier battles with depression in 1997, after her first Olympics.

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"I went from being unmotivated, to being continuously sad, to crying almost every day, to putting on weight, basically all the symptoms of depression - some days not wanting to get out of bed," Ms. Hughes said. "I realized it was out of control when I was sitting in an airport, going to a training camp, just bawling my eyes out and not knowing why."

Soon after, she summoned the courage to speak to a trainer about her sadness. Gradually, she overcame it, changing her diet and finding a near-spiritual release in physical exertion. Bell's big donation, which includes a "Let's Talk" day on Feb. 9 when five cents per text and long-distance call on Bell's network will go toward mental health, was her chance to act. "George mentioned it to me and I said immediately that I wanted to be involved."

Certainly Ms. Hughes knows the effects of stress, and how to combat them. Shortly after a hectic news conference announcing the initiative in Ottawa on Tuesday, she fled the city for a three-hour bicycle ride deep into the Gatineau hills.

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