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Taking the Next Steps: Hockey and Mental Health

The tweets have been sent and now it’s time for something different

UBC Thunderbirds Support Mental Health and Bell Let’s Talk
Rich Lam Photography

In recent years, late January has symbolized a turn towards social activism in the hockey world. Various teams, players, and organizations join their names and star power – or their more humble support -- to a cause. October belongs to cancer research (and rightly so), but late January now belongs to mental health initiatives. Part of this is because January is a very trying month for many. The holidays have ended, routine sets in again, the weather is often cold and dark; for whatever the reason, January is a very trying month for many people’s mental health. Blue Monday, for example, is a day in January said to be the most depressing day of the year.

The #BellLetsTalk campaign is set against this backdrop, and with few other causes to support in January, it seems only fitting that the sporting world would join in throwing its support behind ending the stigma around mental illness and working towards increased awareness and social acceptance of the importance of mental health for everyone. This year, the campaign was almost tailor made for the sporting world. It focused on the need for support for those dealing with mental health challenges; in short, nothing that might require someone still active in the world of professional sports to actually admit to suffering from a mental illness.

This year also saw hockey teams, like the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings, host games in support of the Canadian Mental Health Association in an effort to contribute in a way tied to the team and not a corporation. The success of such events isn’t quantifiable in the same way Bell’s monetary donation is, but having the game after #BellLetsTalk Day did extend the conversation some.

The problem with a campaign based around the idea of various people stepping forward to create a community of support for those with mental illness is it is very easy to vocalize support and a good deal harder to tangibly show support. For some people, a photo with a hockey player wearing a blue toque may make them feel like their struggle is becoming more acceptable, but it still comes with the knowledge that whichever player they're looking at won’t be the one picking up the phone if they need to reach out to someone for tangible support and advice.

For me, that’s where the #BellLetsTalk campaign stumbled this year; last year, it was about empowering those struggling with their own mental health to feel safe enough to express themselves. This is a tactic which can create community, but is also ideally suited to social media in a way creating a support system is not. A support system works best when it follows an old axiom for writers: it’s better to show than to tell.

Beyond that, being part of a support system for someone with mental health concerns may not be as simple as listening – the focus of many commercials – and it is definitely more taxing than wearing a blue toque or sending a tweet. There are times when it will be frustrating, scary, and exhausting. It will seem overwhelming and like nothing makes a difference. And none of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign or the involvement of hockey players touched on how hard being a support system can be. For me, as someone who suffers from mental illness, that was frustrating.

Hockey is an environment where competitiveness and pressure create situations in which anxiety and depression can thrive. Players want to be seen as invincible or the best all of the time. There’s no time to be struggling with something other than playing better hockey. Adam Estoclet was an American player playing in Sweden who took an “unspectacular” blow to the head in practice, suffered a concussion, and then struggled with post-concussion symptoms that included depression or uncontrollable emotion. Yet he tried his best to ignore and play through the symptoms because they didn’t seem to follow what is generally accepted about concussions. And of course because people were talking…

In the meantime, rumors were flying around the town that the new American player was an alcoholic and the team had suspended him — that’s why he had disappeared. So I was desperate to play again. After four weeks, my headaches went away. My hearing seemed a touch better. The ringing was still there, but softer. I felt … O.K.

So I called my coach and told him I was ready. I played in my first game with my new team in front of an incredible home crowd and notched three points in a win. I played for seven more games. Statistically, my game remained consistent. We were 7-1 as a team, and I had eight points in eight games. Anyone watching would have thought my health was perfect.

The only issue is, they didn’t know what was going on in my head. My headaches were gradually coming back, and by the end of the eighth game, I could only hold my head in my hands. My ears were so sensitive to noise I couldn’t even be in the locker room without ear plugs. I would sit on the bench in between shifts and repeatedly try breathing exercises to stay calm. Every person in the building thought I was completely fine, but I was out there counting down the seconds until the game ended.

When I got home to my apartment after the game, I felt absolutely miserable. I was exhausted, but somehow I couldn’t fall asleep. My anxiety was so bad that I could barely breathe. There were times when I would get up to pee, and I’d find myself standing in the kitchen, completely zoned out, wondering what I got up to do. – Adam Estoclet, The Player’s Tribune

Hockey is a game where strength is prized; both physical and mental toughness are held up like some sort of banner of a player’s worth. A goalie, for example, can be criticized to an extreme degree in the media and by fans if they aren’t seen to be mentally strong enough for the position. But that’s the problem when it comes to addressing mental health-related concerns and hockey. No one wants to be seen as weak or incapable of playing the game. Socially, we’ve made steps to eliminate that stigma, but we aren’t there yet. And words aren’t going to get us there. If players, coaches, teams, and the media say that they want to create a world where players feel comfortable admitting to and seeking help for mental health concerns, they need to put their money where their mouths are. Much like any support system, they need to show with actions and not just words that they’ll be as non-judgmental and steady through the difficult parts of being a support system as they are when they’re tweeting their support or telling the media they’d accept and support a teammate with mental illness. But they also need to be patient.

Telling people you have a mental illness is hard; it’s scary, and if that mental illness has a component of anxiety, it might even be a trigger. As I write this, I feel sick to my stomach, I’m literally shaking, I want to delete it all, and I’ve already told all the important people in my life about my struggles with mental health. I can not imagine how difficult it would be as a hockey player to tell your bosses, your co-workers, or the world about what you’re struggling with, knowing that the world you work in may not see your actions as ones of strength.

So, Bell Let’s Talk Day is over. The money has been counted, the toques worn, and the tweets sent. Now it’s time for 364 days of Bell Let’s Act. At the end of the day, how we act on the days it’s not socially acceptable to talk about and support those with mental health concerns, in life and in hockey, will be what changes the landscape of both the stigma around mental illness, especially in sports like hockey. Much like becoming a talented hockey player, the only way to change the culture is to practice.

Someone blow a whistle, practice has started.