Today is World Mental Health Day – and while it’s important to promote its key messages of education and empathy, it won’t make a lick of difference if we don’t put those things into practice on a daily basis. Inside and outside the hockey bubble, people suffer in silence, fearful of stigma and the appearance of weakness. And it’s on all of us – those who are sick and those fortunate enough to escape the clutches of mental illness – to confront the issue as often as we can.
It’s on everybody to remember the late Rick Rypien and the darkness that can envelop even the best-humored and toughest among us. It’s our responsibility to consider the cases of former NHLer great Stephane Richer and popular Canadian broadcaster Michael Landsberg and recognize people who are incredibly successful in their chosen profession aren’t inured to the dangers of depression. It’s on all of us to recognize there is no single trigger for mental illness, yet there is only one appropriate response: personal support and professional help.
Next time you’re at a rink, ask yourself about the stories behind everyone you meet. Maybe there’s an elite female player like Kendra Fisher who deals with panic attacks and depression. Perhaps there’s the daughter of a former NHLer like the late Daron Richardson burdened by troubles she thought nobody else could comprehend. Maybe there’s a young man like Scott Heggart struggling with his sexuality and the homophobia we know can run rampant in a dressing room. Or maybe the change in someone’s personality is purely chemical and the result of repeated concussions.
(For more on the effects of head injuries on mental health, be sure to watch PBS’s recent documentary “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis”; when you do, you’ll see many parallels to hockey – and more importantly, you’ll understand why treatment, research and the removal of stigma is paramount to addressing the issue. Seriously, I can't recommend it enough.)
You needn’t be a mental health expert to deal with any or all of the above scenarios. All you need is the will to put yourself out there as a friend and/or a sounding board for someone in distress. What might seem like a momentary and token gesture of politeness to you could represent a lifeline desperately needed by someone else.
It’s easy to lose ourselves and our troubles in the minutiae and melodrama of sports. Indeed, escapism is a large part of our collective attraction to them. But that doesn’t excuse us from recognizing that some people – including some of our most prominent public figures – eventually see no escape from the raging seas inside their head. Once we accept that, we have two choices, and only two.
The first choice is for us to stand on the shoreline, waving frantically at the person to swim to safety on their own, wondering how they got into the water to begin with.
The other choice – the choice we all ought to take, regardless of the role we play – is to jump in and move out toward them with an arm extended.
It’s one thing to talk a good game when it comes to mental health. But it means so much more when words become actions and we help the powerless gain some measure of respect, understanding and control over their life.
That victory likely won't make national headlines, but it always will carry more value than any Stanley Cup championship or Olympic gold medal.