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Let’s Talk About Mental Illness

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In honour of Bell Let's Talk Day, this is a chance to acknowledge a growing social issue

Hockey and mental illness seem like concepts that should not be linked. After all, hockey is a competitive sport requiring athletes to be in peak mental and physical condition. Yet it seems that mental illnesses, especially mood disorders like depression, flourish in the shadows of the sport. No one speaks about them until a tragedy occurs. At that point, there's a lot said about how someone like Rick Rypien or Wade Belak or Terry Trafford suffered but didn't want anyone to know. There's guys like Steve Montador, who are forgotten when they retire and who are memorialized afterward they're gone. It's after the fact though. The conversation is centred around players who are lost to tragedy or retired (Fluery, Kennedy or Malarchuk), but there is little said about players in the NHL, CHL, AHL, ECHL, or other leagues-any active players--suffering from mental illness.

Depression and anxiety are the worst kept secrets in professional sports. In every locker room across the NHL, there are guys who are struggling with the fear of everything — the fear of a bad shift, the fear of pissing off their coach, the fear of getting traded or cut and letting down their family. What also happens in every locker room is that there are teammates, trainers and staff who stay silent too long when a guy struggles. - Hayley Wickenheiser, The Player's Tribune

Whether this is because active players fear the stigma that is associated with a diagnosis of mental illness or not, the fact remains that with the Canadian Mental Health Association reporting that as many as one in five Canadians will suffer from a mental illness, there is an active NHL player who is struggling with a mental health issue somewhere. There are very valid reasons for keeping mental health issues private. For instance, they make many uncomfortable; they leave others struggling to find ways to describe the situation which make sense to outsiders. Depression is reduced to sadness when the reality is much bleaker than simple sadness. Others are afraid of the social stigmas and black lash that may occur if they are public about their struggles. For NHL players especially, public perception is important.

Hockey culture is one which values toughness-both mental and physical. There is an unspoken expectation players will play injured, and that sort of expectation is easily applied to mental health as well. There's the idea that players suffering from mental illness aren't tough enough to play hockey or don't belong in some way. Especially for young players at the start of their careers, the idea of not having a career may be a powerful motivator for silence.

However, nothing changes for the better in that type of situation.  Mental illnesses, particularly mood disorders, aren't something that can be simply willed away. Symptoms can be hidden, affected parties can function, but the illness is still there. Without admitting to the problem, lasting solutions can't be affected.

The major problem when talking about mental illness is that each author can really only tell their own story.  The experiences related in memoirs like The Crazy Game, Why I Didn't Say Anything, or Playing with Fire are specific stories of how mental illness affected specific people. More of these stories are required to tell the story of mental illness and its connection to hockey. Stories which, for whatever reason, aren't available to us.

Each story of mental illness, and how each individual copes with mental illness, is unique and personal. The only people who can tell those stories are the ones who have experienced the situation to begin with because every person copes with the challenges presented differently. Without stories to connect with, mental illness and its sometimes devastating effects remain a difficult concept for many to understand.

If a story is required to give mental illness a face, to make it more real and relatable for hockey fans, I can provide one. Each person can only tell their own story; this is mine.

I had a fairly normal childhood. It might have had a few more instances of upheaval than strictly speaking would be considered good, but it remains one of the times of my life that I look back on with the most fondness. I assume that for most people childhood is something they view with a nostalgic fondness. I am different from the majority in that I can pinpoint the exact day when my childhood ended.

I woke up one morning to find out the mother I thought invincible and constant was gone. That remains a defining moment in my life, a pivot point for what follows. After the loss of my mother, I had no clue how to process the grief. For the most part, I didn't allow myself to dwell on it. I didn't want people to know how badly I was hurting because the world no longer seemed like a safe place.  Eventually, this constant uncertainty coupled with a family predisposition to mental illness lead to something more than simple grief or being sad.

I put all my efforts into making the people around me happy, believing in my heart that if I could simply be perfect, then they wouldn't leave me, believing that I must have done something to deserve losing my mother.  By the time I graduated high school, I had a coping mechanism perfected. I only let myself feel angry because I didn't know how to feel anything else. I spent years believing that if I could function, I wasn't sick.

I got my University degree - my mother's dream - my first full time job, earned and lost promotions based on the fact I was too emotional and unable to control my reactions and obsessive nature, and the entire time I tried to convince myself it was all right, and I didn't need help.

I was wrong. I finally reached a point where I was so physically exhausted and mentally drained from trying to force myself into being something I wasn't that I ended up in a doctor's office. I half expected that he'd tell me I wasn't sick or that I wasn't worth his time - two of my greatest fears - but he didn't. Instead, he asked me questions. Questions like are you considering hurting yourself? Yes. Do you have a plan for killing yourself? What kind of well thought-out suicide attempt doesn't have a plan? Of course I had a plan. And the one that resounded, and hurt, most of all: when is the last time you remember being happy? Never. I cannot remember a time in my life where I was happy. I can remember tired, I can remember thinking something was nice or funny or being glad something happened, but I could not remember being happy. What kind of person has a whole emotion missing from their world? The answer is, of course, one about to be diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder.

I was put on an antidepressant medication and then an anti-anxiety medication. It wasn't surprising to find out that the effects of the depression had been hiding both anxiety and panic attacks. I ended up back in my doctor's office - and several other offices - over the course of the next two years, trying to find a combination that would allow me to live as normally as possible. Some days, it seems like it's been a successful process but others see me return to the dark places I was in before.

I wish I could say that being on anti-depressants ended my escapades into self-harm, but they didn't. They didn't stop the periodic desire to kill myself or even my refining of a plan to accomplish that end. What they did give me was an increased knowledge of emotion. I now know happy. I even know happy to be alive. I know what it is to care about something or love someone with a sharpness that was lacking before. It's a lot living in a black and white world and finding colour.

I love colour. Colour is the most amazing thing I've ever seen. This breadth and depth of emotion, this way of relating to the world, is something I appreciate so very much because I know what it is to lack it. I would never chose to go back to what my life was before, no matter how difficult it is to cope.

But sharing this story is a completely terrifying endeavour. Because the world isn't kind to those with mental illness. Despite the fact many Canadians are affected by mental illness in some way, words like crazy and nutbar and fruitcake still cast a long shadow over those with mental illnesses. In short, there is a stigma associated with mental illness ,and because of that, many with mental illness are seen as less capable, professional, or competent. In many ways, those with mental illnesses are just seen as less.

Malarchuk's memoir The Crazy Game describes how the effects of stigma can undermine someone even in their own mind-especially in something as elite as professional hockey—well.

But there was an asterisk beside my name now; the footnote read "crazy." My reputation brought to mind words like unpredictable, uncontrollable, uncooperative, unhinged - unemployable. Who the hell hires crazy?  -- Clint Malarchuk, The Crazy Game

It is understandable that many who suffer from mental illness don't want to be categorized as such because, to be frank, the category sucks. It is one where there is little understanding, and only recently have steps been taken to reduce stigma and promote inclusion. Some of those steps have been more public and more successful-initiatives like Bell Let's Talk, spearheaded by the indomitable Clara Hughes-have helped to break down social stigma. In areas where virtues like toughness and grit are valued-professional hockey as one example-there are still strides to be made in changing the perception of those with mental illness from one of weakness to one of strength. After that, maybe there will be stories from the world of professional hockey that don't end in tragedy or come well after the fact. In the end, honest conversation is the simplest and most impactful method of change, so... let's talk.

If you're struggling with mental illness, there are resources available.

Canadian Mental Health Association - Edmonton Region

Edmonton  211

Alberta Health Services Mental Health Clinic

Mental Health Foundation

CASA - Child, Adolescent, and Family Mental Health Services

Edmonton Police Services

Capital Health

Your Family Doctor, Medicentre, or Hospital