WATCH: The president of the Ontario Bar Association is speaking up about his own battles with depression, trying to promote openness about mental illness in the professional setting. Sean Mallen reports.
TORONTO – It was the secret that Orlando Da Silva hid from everyone.
Every since he was 9 years old he has suffered from dysthymia, a chronic low grade depression, that flares up every 4-5 years into a major episode. It was during one of those periods that excess self-medication almost killed him when he took 180 sleeping pills coupled with two bottles of wine.
“I didn’t set out to kill myself; I just wanted to end the pain. But I didn’t care if death resulted,” he told Global News in an interview at the Ontario Bar Association’s downtown Toronto office.
Da Silva not only survived that close call, but has battled through depression to become a successful trial lawyer, a candidate for parliament, a litigation specialist with the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General and, since last August, the President of the Ontario Bar Association. It was only when he took over the leadership of the organization that speaks for the province’s lawyers that he decided to open up about his personal trials. He has started speaking about his depression and urging other lawyers to reach out for help.
“I’m hoping that by doing this, someone will feel comfortable to tell anyone at all,” said Da Silva.
He has given several talks, both in person and via the web and has been startled at the response. Lawyers would line up to confide in him.
“They would say ‘welcome to my world’, or ‘I’ve attempted suicide’ and ‘I don’t know where to turn,” he said.
Da Silva said some lawyers did not want to reveal their struggles due to the nature of the type-A personalities drawn to the legal profession or due to the fear of being stigmatized.
“They’ve got the most serious problems they’re dealing with for others. They’re championing causes or clients. And they have to fight hard for them. And if they’re perceived as weak, the client is going to turn somewhere else.”
Da Silva said he does not expect lawyers to be as public as he has been, but wishes to encourage those suffering from depression to tell someone, if only a friend or relative, so that they can make a call for help when they hit a trough that could lead to self-harm.
As he took up this cause, he learned a sobering statistic: in the United States, lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression as the general population. And they are not the only high-powered professionals reluctant to reach out for assistance.
“Physicians will have more suicidal thoughts before they seek help before any other group,” said Dr. Paul Garfinkel, a psychiatrist at CAMH.
Airline pilots can be added to the conversation, particularly after the coverage of the Germanwings crash, and the reported depression of co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who prosecutors believe deliberately flew the jet into the side of a mountain, killing himself and the 149 other people on board.
Both Garfinkel and Da Silva believe the coverage of the tragedy has hurt the cause of those who want to promote an open and frank dialogue about mental health and could discourage those who suffer from depression from opening up.
“It’s so easy to go back to the old stereotypes,” said Garfinkel.
He said there are many and varied forms of depression, with only a tiny minority of sufferers who pose a risk to anyone other than themselves.
“It’s a real error to link depression to murdering 150 people.”
Da Silva said there is much that upsets him about the discussion of that incident.
“It does make the job harder if people assume that someone who is depressed and suicidal is also homicidal,” he said.
But it will not discourage the Bar Association president from continuing his campaign for openness, saying he wants to convey the message that a professional can be suffering, but still successful.
He will be speaking about it at the High Notes for Mental Health concert on May 2 at the Flato Markham Theatre.
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