One of the hallmarks of David Branch’s tenure as commissioner of the Ontario Hockey League has been his willingness to take the lead when it comes to athlete safety. He did so again Monday, launching a new campaign to educate junior hockey players on mental health issues.
The campaign, “Talk Today”, was formed in concert with the Canadian Mental Health Association and will provide tools to help players and hockey staff to identify mental health issues. As part of their mission in this regard, the league will conduct mental health and suicide-awareness workshops, stage community awareness events at games, and develop mental health coaches and champions to remove the stigma associated with the disease.
Eradicating that stigma is one of the most important parts of the program.
While there’s a need to address the acute symptoms of mental illnesses – suicide prevention hotlines, and the like – at their critical stages, it’s incredibly crucial to let these young athletes know it’s not weakness to admit to struggling with mental health. The pressure to act and look strong among their peers and before team management is enormous and has caused countless players to hide physical injuries to stay in the lineup, and it’s only natural they’d do the same with a mental health condition. But the consequences of that can be far more dire than re-aggravating a pulled muscle or strained tendons. The consequences can lead to tragedy.
The OHL’s new program may not have saved the life of Terry Trafford – the 20-year-old Saginaw forward who committed suicide in March of this year after being sent home by his franchise for violating team rules – because nobody can say with certainty what would've reached him before he made his decision. But if all the “Talk Today” program does is normalize the discussion of mental health struggles, it will be more than worth it. The league will have demonstrated to a new generation of players that, although their teammates need them to make a difference and be there for each other the ice, they also need them to do the same once the games and practices have ended. They need to realize it's OK to ask for help.
The way you do that is through programs such as this one. Kudos to Branch and his league for doing more than the minimum to address a problem the hockey world isn’t immune from.