'I suffered in silence': Psychologist opens up about his own struggle with mental illness

Having dedicated his life to healing others with mental illness, it took years before Dr. Ian Manion realized he needed help himself.

The clinical psychologist, who works at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, has suffered from anxiety and depressive episodes since childhood. 

"I remember being a little kid where there were people coming over and I was very anxious, and I remember going and hiding in a closet because I just wasn’t going to be able to handle it,” Manion, who is one of the faces of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign this year, told CTV News.

“And being in the closet and saying, ‘If I stop hold my breath long enough, will I stop breathing and go away?’ So at a young age I was starting to think about suicidal thoughts. I didn’t know they were suicidal thoughts, but I knew I didn’t want to feel this way anymore.”

“Suicidal thoughts followed me for quite a while,” he added.

At 17, Manion says that he considered ending his life.

"I actually sat in the car, running the motor with the garage door down and hoping, like that little kid in the closet, ‘Maybe I’ll stop breathing and I’ll stop having these feelings.’ It’s a terrible thing to think, right? And then I guess the smarter part of me, the wiser part of me, said, ‘What am I doing to the people I care about?"

Manion's experiences led him to study psychology and specialize in youth mental health at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario. He had a successful career and was a father of five.

But when one of his five children was diagnosed and treated for an eating disorder, he was forced to confront his long-hidden struggles.

"I thought I was carrying all the balls in the air, I thought I was managing all my inner demons -- a good professional, I was helping other people, I had a great job, colleagues, some successes. I had kids -- although they had some challenges, I thought they were doing OK. And nothing was OK. And I wasn’t OK.”

Manion finally sought counselling and started taking medication.

At first he kept his personal struggles private, but was approached to speak about it at a health conference. To do so, he first had to tell his parents. 

"My parents didn’t know I suffered from mental illness. I was the psychologist in the family,” he said.

Manion had frequently helped other family members with their mental health issues, giving them advice and directing them to services.

“I went to speak to my parents and they started crying. They said, ‘How can you have a mental illness? You’re our mental health professional.”

Now he talks about his struggles to whoever it's appropriate. He recalls one presentation via a webcast to students at several high schools.

"’You can be someone with an illness and do really, really well,’ I told them. ‘And by the way, I am someone who has a mental illness and I think I do OK.’ And I said that on camera -- live broadcast across all these high schools -- and you can see ... the screenshots of either a classroom or a cafeteria or an auditorium, and the kids’ faces are kind of [pondering that]. And there was a question period at the end and one of the kids puts up their hand and asks: ‘How can you have that? You’re a doctor.’ And I explained, ‘Yes, doctors can have that too, and lawyers can have that too, and teachers can have that too, and you can have that too. And I can get better and you can get better.’”

Dr. Zul Merali, the CEO of The Royal, says Manion’s voice has become a powerful force in youth mental health in Canada.

“He knows what needs to be out there to help the young people deal with mental illness because of his experience,” he said.

“People with mental illness often feel their voices are not heard. So called ‘experts’ tell them what to do. In Ian’s case, he speaks that language, he lives that life, and he brings his expertise to change things.

Manion has helped establish YouthNet -- programs that promote mental strength and resiliency among teenagers -- by letting young people design programs. His goal is to help schools, doctors and communities help teens develop mental strength and resilience, as a means of preventing psychological distress that’s rampant among Canada’s youth.

“I want to fill their toolboxes with so many things that they don’t have to suffer in silence. They know they can not be too well and get well again,” he said.

Manion also believes Canada’s mental health system needs to retooling so it focuses more on prevention.

“Our model of care has been to wait until people are very sick and really broken, and then fix them through expensive means. Or we have people waiting in line at the wrong door for the wrong care, the wrong services,” he said.

“I believe we have to get to the front end -- that takes us to the tool box, (where we) are helping young people to understand there are ways to manage their feelings.”

With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip


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