On a day when Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign dominated social media, it’s important to look back and remember those we’ve lost to mental illness – and the wonderful advocacy work that’s being done in their memory.
Once again, Bell Canada’s admirable “Let’s Talk” campaign, which focuses on raising mental health awareness, has dominated social media via the #BellLetsTalk hashtag and in part due to the communications giant’s pledge to donate five cents for every tweet or retweet it got on Twitter. But it wouldn’t be doing much good if we didn’t continue the conversation beyond one designated day each year. And we’d be remiss in the hockey world if we didn’t stop and remember the people mental illness has taken from this community.
Mental illness took away Rick Rypien, the Canucks enforcer who was engulfed by clinical depression and committed suicide in August of 2011. Mental illness claimed the life of Daron Richardson, daughter of former NHLer Luke Richardson, who ended her life when she was only 14 years old. Mental illness robbed us of a full life for Terry Trafford, the OHL player who killed himself days after his 20th birthday in March of last year. It took Wade Belak, another physically tough customer who endeared himself to NHL fans on and off the ice, at age 35 in August of 2011. Most recently, it took Clint Reif, the beloved Blackhawks assistant equipment manager, just days before Christmas at age 34.
And that’s to say nothing of hockey people who’ve attempted to hurt themselves or been affected by mental illness.
Former NHLers Theo Fleury, Clint Malarchuk and Sheldon Kennedy have all spoken bravely and publicly about contemplating or actively trying to end their lives. Patrick Burke, co-founder of The You Can Play Project and director of NHL player safety, has been equally open and honest about his brutal battles with depression. And the scariest part of all are the stories we haven’t heard. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, suicide accounts for 24 percent of all deaths among 15-24 year-olds and 16 percent among those aged 25-44.
Indeed, mental illness is all around us, and yet because it’s not tactile, not a black spot on an x-ray a doctor can point out, it’s easy to misunderstand or not recognize at all. But we can fight it with everything we’ve got, and one of the best ways we do that is by removing the stigma around it so that people who are fighting for understanding – and in many cases, fighting for their lives – have the support they need and deserve.
When we talk about what mental illness has robbed us of, it’s just as important to note what’s happened in the wake of the tragedies it has been responsible for. Rick Rypien’s legacy will be his charitable foundation, not the way he left us. Same goes for Daron Richardson. Terry Trafford’s friends and family held a ball hockey tournament in his honor, with all proceeds going to the Kids Help Phone. Kennedy, Malarchuk, Fleury and Burke regularly share their stories and push for more understanding and acceptance of those who haven’t yet come through the other side of the tunnel and need our help to get there.
That’s what I think about on a day like today – the determination of all of us, inside and outside of the hockey community, to cherish the memories of the people we’ve lost and let them serve as the force that pushes us together, closer, and more honest with one another than we’ve ever been before.