TORONTO — Matthew Good remembers a time when his work ethic nearly destroyed him.
In 2006, the Canadian musician was struggling through a separation, an addiction to anti-anxiety medication and an as-yet undiagnosed depressive condition. Staying at his parents’ house near Vancouver, he was barely eating or sleeping.
Then, against the advice of his family and manager, he headed out on tour.
“I had such a track record of motoring through stuff I had no business doing,” Good recalled in a telephone interview.
“I just looked at my marriage in that context as just another example of that. I wasn’t going to let it stop me from working — God forbid. Might as well go on the road and have a nervous breakdown and end up in a hospital.”
That is, in fact, what happened. Good recently shared his story as keynote speaker at the seventh annual Bottom Line 2009: Workplace Mental Illness and the Family Conference in Vancouve.
Though Good’s workplace is not exactly typical, his way of dealing with his mental health problems is alarmingly common.
According to numbers supplied by the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20.6 per cent of Canadian workers at some point suffer a bout of mental illness and 40 per cent of short and long-term disability claims involve a mental health problem.
When a breadwinner is diagnosed with a mental illness, 60 per cent of these families see a drop in income — which helps to explain why so many wait too long to acknowledge their problem.
People often wait too long, then “end up going into sick leave and long-term disability and then exiting the workplace,” said Bev Gutray, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s B.C. division. “We hear that story again and again from people.”
Dr. Elenna Denisoff, team treatment leader in the work, stress and health program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, recommends a proactive approach.
“Oftentimes the motto we’ve had in the past is that people work until they’re unable to function, and then they go on a stress leave, maybe because of a depression or whatever it is, and then they’re off for many months at a time,” she said.
“But it’s increasingly recommended that if that’s pre-empted by decreasing the workload or addressing some of the stress on the job, that people might not need as much time off at all.”
For Good, meanwhile, the episode that prompted him to seek help may have been exacerbated by his workload, but was also part of something much bigger.
For years, he struggled with anxiety and depression. Though he says he never used illegal drugs, the six-foot-tall Good says he has only weighed between 135 and 145 pounds through much of his 20s because he rarely ate, instead consuming coffee and cigarettes.
“I looked like a heroin addict,” he said.
And he worked tirelessly. There were times when the three-time Juno Award winner says he would rehearse for six to eight hours only to go home and spend another eight hours working by himself.
During this time, Good says he frequently suffered anxiety attacks that occasionally knocked him unconscious.
“Depression is like any other disease, it’s something that people need to understand and have compassion regarding it,” he said.