Former cabinet minister Michael Wilson, who died on Sunday at the age of 81, was a tireless advocate for mental health care and suicide prevention in Canada. The cause was a personal one: On April 24, 1995, Mr. Wilson’s son Cameron, who struggled with severe depression, died by suicide at the age of 29. Four years after Cameron’s death, the elder Mr. Wilson shared his son’s story for the first time as he prepared to launch a $10-million fundraising campaign for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Foundation. Below is health reporter André Picard’s report, originally published Oct. 2, 1999.
The phone rang in the middle of the night, shattering the silence like a loud, crazy intruder.
"You gotta come down, dad. Now."
A father, hearing this plea from his child, does not ask questions. Michael Wilson dressed quickly, and drove from his North York home to his son's apartment in downtown Toronto.
Cameron Wilson was gone.
“I started searching for him. By pure accident, I found him wandering the streets. It was the middle of December, it was cold, and he was in slippers,” Mr. Wilson says in a hushed voice. “He was hallucinating, imagining things. He was clearly a very sick young man. Cam needed help.”
Mr. Wilson had moved effortlessly from the federal cabinet to the upper echelons of Bay Street. One of Canada's most powerful and influential men, he was renowned for his iron will and unflappability.
But on that night in December, 1994, as he hugged his oldest boy, as he tried to shield him from the gnawing demons, Michael Wilson became just another scared parent, one drawn inexorably into the frightening world of mental illness.
The next morning, Cameron was admitted to the Clarke Institute for Psychiatry. The young businessman was diagnosed with severe depression. He accepted treatment, but the disease was too powerful.
On April 24, 1995, Cameron Wilson committed suicide. He was 29.
Today, in memory of his son, Michael Wilson is chairing a $10-million fundraising campaign that the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Foundation will launch later this month. And the granite-faced politician, the steely-eyed vice-chairman of RBC Dominion Securities, is setting out to shatter stereotypes as the poster boy for mental health awareness week.
"There are not many things in life as hard as coming to grips with the fact that your child is suffering from mental illness," Mr. Wilson says. He grew up believing that depression and addiction were signs of moral weakness, not diseases. He is also of an era when you didn't talk of such things.
But convinced that the mental-illness stigma contributed to his son's demise, he has vowed to change that reality.
Cameron was a gifted athlete, who played rugger, hockey, tennis and football. He was brash and out-going, worked on election campaigns and, like his father, had been making his way in the business world. He worked at a merchant bank in London before moving back to Toronto for a job on the trading desk at National Trust. But, in the final months of his life, Cameron became aggressive and obnoxious. He was fired from his job after clashing repeatedly with his boss, and struggled to find another. "In retrospect, knowing what we do now, we should have recognized the early signs of mental illness. But, at the time, I put a lot of it down to him being an angry young man," Mr. Wilson says.
When Cameron was institutionalized, it was one of the most unsettling experiences of his father's life; he had never before visited a psychiatric institution. The young man did not want his friends to visit, and he was terrified that the diagnosis of depression would forever ruin his job prospects.
"People should be as comfortable talking about mental illness as they are talking about their triple bypass, or about losing their hair during chemo. If we can bring mental illness into the open, maybe we can avoid some tragedies," Mr. Wilson says.
A day before his son's funeral, he decided to speak openly about suicide and the underlying mental illness. It came as a shock to many of his son's friends.
About 3,500 Canadians kill themselves each year; more than 2,000 of them suffer from depression. The mental illness is the leading cause of absenteeism, and costs the economy an estimated $12-billion in lost productivity.
"But you can't state the case for mental illness in strictly economic terms," Mr. Wilson said. "You have to look at the impact on the family and the community."
Mental illness often tears families apart. So too can a suicide. Mr. Wilson said the family remained intact, and even grew closer, thanks to excellent counselling. He cut back on his busy schedule to spend more time with his wife Margaret, much of it just walking and talking. The other children, Geoffrey and Lara, decided they would continue to talk openly about Cameron, both about the good times and the bad.
For a public figure like Mr. Wilson, especially one of his era, that is not always easy. During an hour-long interview this week, he fidgeted continually with his pocket change and struggled to suppress his emotions. Asked how he and his wife mark the anniversary of Cameron's death each April 24, for example, Mr. Wilson sat silent for almost a minute, tears welling in his eyes, before saying quietly: "That is a very, very personal question. I would like to say, I would rather leave it at that, please." He has money, power and connections, but has agreed to expose himself to these rare moments of vulnerability for the simple reason that it will get the issue front-and-centre in the news, and generate significant donations to the foundation's campaign.
"One of the things that was said to me is that, if I'm willing to tell my story, I will get a lot more exposure than someone who hasn't spent 14 years in federal politics. If it will help make a difference, then I am willing to do this," Mr. Wilson said.
Paul Garfinkle, chairman and CEO of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said Mr. Wilson's experience is not that different from that of other parents who have lost a child to mental illness. But his profile in the business community will definitely help shatter some stereotypes about mental illness.
"One visible role model can do a lot more good for the cause than a roomful of academics," Dr. Garfinkle said. "Michael Wilson and his family members have come forward with thoughtfulness and dignity to say mental illness is not shameful, it's a disease, and it's sad."
The centre was formed last year by merging two psychiatric institutions, The Clarke Institute for Psychiatry and Queen Street Mental Health Centre, and two addiction facilities, The Addiction Research Foundation and The Donwood Institute.
The fundraising campaign, entitled Centred on Hope, is by far the largest ever in the mental-health field in Canada. It is unusual, too, because it is raising money not for infrastructure, but for intellectual capital, notably research.
Next week, for example, it will announce the creation of the Cameron Wilson Chair in Depression at the University of Toronto faculty of medicine.
"I would hope that Cam would be pleased I'm doing this, knowing that he's an inspiration," Mr. Wilson said.
He vividly recalls the last day he spent with his son, clearing brush at the cottage, then driving to the airport in separate cars so the businessman could fly off to a function.
“We were near the airport, and pulled over to switch cars. I had a brief chat with Cam by the side of the road. It was no different from any other time – except I never saw him again.”
Since that time, Mr. Wilson has taken a road less travelled, taking his message – that mental illness is a reality that needs to be dealt with, not hidden away – to boardrooms and church basements. “Just look at the statistics. If you look around you, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t have a family member or friend with a mental illness. I’m not any different from others. I’m just getting more exposure than the rest of them.”