Former Barenaked Ladies lead singer at UTSC for Mental Health Awareness Month (photo by Ken Jones)

Steven Page and Mental Health Awareness Month

Singer talks with UTSC students

Steven Page urged students and others with mental health issues to get help, rather than deny their problems as he denied his bipolar disorder for years.

“We sustain this stigma ourselves,” Page said. “I understand it’s hard. I’m up here talking about it, first, because I have to -- I was outed because of being arrested for drug possession. Drugs were a blip. But the inner struggle was ongoing.”

The former lead singer for the Barenaked Ladies spoke Wednesday as part of Mental Health Awareness Month at University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC). He talked about his lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder, the self-medication that eventually led to his drug arrest and departure from the band, and his ongoing struggle to deal with his disease while continuing to perform and raise teenage children.

In hindsight, Page said, it’s obvious that he was dealing with mental health issues from an early age. As a child he would often consider suicide, imagining, for instance, exactly which kitchen knife he would use to kill himself.

“I never realized I had any problems. I think a lot of us who deal with mental health struggles experienced that. Because stress is such a huge part of everybody’s life … Sadness, grief, those are all things we all deal with. The healthy brain processes it and learns to cope with it and overcome it. Sometimes the sick brain gets stuck in it.”

Page talked about walking over the Bloor Viaduct, near where he lived at the time. Suicides jumping from the bridge were so common that the city put up a barrier to prevent it. As the work progressed, Page said, he considered whether he should jump before it was completed.

Just as bad as the original mental health problem is the guilt and self-blame that the sufferer feels, Page said.

“I’d be the first person to tell myself to snap out of it. Cheer up. Get out of bed. Get out of bed. Get out of bed! But it wouldn’t always happen.”

He told about a day in 1994 as the band was preparing to make a music video to support the release of its second album. The first album had been a success, but Page was worried that the second might not do as well.

“My brain said, ‘It’s all over.’ … I literally had that thing that’s an actual physical inability to get out of bed. Eventually I had a friend come and drag me out of bed, dress me, and drag me hours late to the video shoot.”

Shortly after, he was diagnosed by his family doctor with manic depression, which is now called bipolar disorder. But Page didn’t go public with his mental health issues until after his arrest in New York in 2008 for cocaine possession.

When he was released after the arrest he returned to Toronto, hoping it would blow over. Instead he got a text message from the CBC’s Rick Mercer, reassuring him that “This too shall pass.”

“I was like, ‘Oh... If Rick Mercer knows, that means it’s on the wire.’ ”

Sure enough, he was besieged the next day by reporters and television cameras in his front yard, and spent days hiding in his basement.

Since breaking with the Barenaked Ladies, Page has built a solo career and also become an active speaker on mental health issues. He says that medications have helped him (although he dislikes some of the side effects), and has a good relationship with a therapist he trusts.

Page recommended students take advantage of the mental health resources on campus. It’s important to deal with problems early on, he said, especially if you can do it in the supportive atmosphere of university.

Page sang several songs, including “Brian Wilson,” with its refrain of “Lying in bed, just like Brian Wilson did.” He said that he wrote the song at age 19, and didn’t realize until years later that it was describing a symptom of depression.

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