Honestly, I was prepared to never work in hockey again. When I went public with my story about struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression last year, I was terrified that people wouldn’t understand. I was worried that no one would want to hire me ever again, and that doors would close on me — and maybe worst of all, that people in the hockey community would look at me like I was damaged goods, that I would never work in hockey again.
I mean, I wrote about trying to kill myself. I wrote about struggling daily with dark thoughts that wouldn’t go away no matter what I did. I wrote about feeling weak and confused and sad, which is something that hockey players of my generation — and honestly, anyone of my generation — were told was for “crazy people.” In my day, you simply did not talk about mental health. Ever.
So before I published my story, I honestly was prepared for the worst. But I shared it with my family and with my kids, and they gave me their blessing and support. I was tired of holding everything inside. I wanted people to know the real me and why I was like that when I was younger. After the story went out into the world, well … my fears couldn’t have been further from reality. I was absolutely blown away by how many people reached out to me through text and email and Twitter to say that they’d struggled with similar thoughts and feelings for years — sometimes decades — and either they didn’t know what was wrong with them, or they were afraid to talk to someone about it.
Well, I’m not alone. We’re not alone. Mental health awareness is an enormous, unspoken problem — not just in hockey in Canada and the United States, and not just in sports in general, but also across all other spectrums of society.
Almost one in five … think about that. About twenty percent of the adult population suffers from mental illness, and just because you are a professional athlete or a doctor or a lawyer does not grant you immunity. Anyone at anytime can suffer from a mental health issue and it can strike at any time.
There’s nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about. We’re all just trying to get through the day. So let’s be open. Let’s talk about it.
In the past year I’ve been at golf tournaments and other events, and 40- and 50-year-old men have walked up to me right out of the blue, with tears in their eyes, and said, “Thank you. You gave me a voice. I went through it, too. Sometimes I still go through it.”
They don’t want me to fix them. They don’t want me to cure them. They know I’m not qualified to do that. They just want me to listen.
I spent years trapped in a cycle of shame and disgust and depression — not telling a single soul what was really going on with me — before I finally reached out and was properly diagnosed with true OCD. It was like the weight of the world fell from my shoulders. I wasn’t cured. But I finally knew what was causing all of my relentless thoughts.
Getting proper help is everything. What I have learned over the past year, in talking with many experts, is just how crucial it is to get an early diagnosis. So many young people from the high-risk ages of 15–24 are struggling with mental health issues and going years without getting treatment. I can tell you, if you’re one of those people who are struggling, that I’ve been down those dark roads. Man, do I know what they feel like. But I swear to you, you should not be afraid of your mental illness or what anyone thinks. Get diagnosed, see a doctor. It will be the best decision you ever make.
Roman Knertser/The Players' Tribune
Listen, I’ll admit it to you right now: There are days when I still get sad. There are days when I still struggle with stuff. We all do. The reality is that there’s still a lot we don’t know about the brain, and there’s not a permanent “cure” or a set timetable for recovery like there is with a broken arm or a torn ACL. But one of my big missions in life is to make it O.K. to talk about depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. I would love to get to a point where it doesn’t take someone in the sports world to die in order for us to start talking about mental health again.
Just last week, Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski committed suicide in his apartment. Reading the news about his death broke my heart because I’ve been there before, when I was around the same age. I had no idea about all the incredible stuff that was coming in my life — especially the birth of my children and all the wonderful things I would get to see them do.
Of course, we don’t know exactly what Tyler was struggling with, but his death makes me feel like we failed him as a society. We can’t save everyone, but we can create an environment where it’s more than O.K. for athletes to talk about mental health issues — an environment where that kind of honesty is encouraged as a strength, not a weakness.
I’m now a national advocate for mental health for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada. If I had a magic wand, my biggest wish would be that, a year from now, there would be mental health awareness classes in schools and the hockey community across North America. Every single kid should be equipped with a basic knowledge about anxiety, depression, OCD and other mental health issues. To treat these things like they don’t exist is unacceptable.
When I was a kid, no one told me that somebody could wake up one day with obsessive thoughts that would plague them constantly. No one told me that somebody could be so depressed that they wouldn’t be able to get out of bed for weeks on end. No one told me that if any of those things did happen to you that you should get help immediately. Our children need to know this stuff. We fail them as a society if we don’t educate them about mental health.
You know, it’s actually remarkable … I’ve spoken at a few schools about my story, and I was so nervous about how I was going to make a room full of kids pay attention for 10 minutes. But it was the exact opposite of my fears. The kids were completely engaged and interested in what I had to say. Kids are extremely savvy about the things that their peers are struggling with. They want the information.
I’ve been moved by the work that young kids are doing to help each other out. One example in Canada is 18-year-old Myles Mattila from Kelowna, B.C. He started a program when he was 13 after a teammate experienced a mental health crisis. Five years later, Myles’s work has helped his teammates feel comfortable about opening up about their feelings, and prepared them to help someone who tells them, “I don’t feel good.” To see that kind of thing happening is encouraging.
Parents can be another story. Not all of them, of course. Most are open-minded and want their kids to be aware of the realities of life. But some parents are sadly still stuck in the past. Those people are only being naive. Chances are they know someone who is struggling, and it’s my mission to try to end the taboo associated with discussing mental health.
For any athletes who are reading this, who might have gone through hell — or who are still going through hell — and are afraid to tell their story, I can tell you from personal experience, with 100% certainty, that people aren’t going to look at you like you are dangerous or insane. The doors aren’t going to close on you. They’re only going to open. In fact, I’ve had more opportunity presented to me in the last year than ever before. People are only going to want to talk to you and share their own stories.
Twenty-four years ago, I was playing in the NHL and driving around in a sports car. To the outside world, I had it all. But inside, I just wanted my dark thoughts to stop forever. I wanted it so bad that I thought about taking my own life.
Every day that I get to wake up and see my kids do something incredible.…
Every day that I get to go to an arena and talk hockey with somebody.…
Every day that I walk out into the world and meet a complete stranger who just wants to shake my hand and tell me their story.…
I thank God that I’m still here.
Look, I still get sad. I still have bad days. I still struggle. Hell, don’t we all?
So what are we going to do? Let’s talk about it and get some help.
I’m proof that there’s nothing to be afraid of.