Saturday, September 3, 2011

Will Wade Belak's death raise awareness of the need for treatment for depression?

There is a stigma surrounding mental health issues including depression. People are clearly uncomfortable talking about it. I'm just talking about the general population but when we are talking about professional athletes, it's virtually a taboo.

Many friends and teammates were unaware that Wade Belak suffered with depression. It's the culture that exists in hockey dressing room that inhibits openness. Just think about it. Hockey enforcers spend most of their professional career on the bubble. They get paid close to the NHL minimum salary for most of their career, often playing on 4 or 5 minutes per game. They frequently find themselves sitting in the pressbox, not because of poor play but because the team has no need for an enforcer in some games. There is always several players in the AHL more than ready to fill the role should a spot become open. Enforcer don't like to report injuries for fear of having to sit out and potential lose their spot on the roster. You are the tough guy afterall. You are expected to watch the back of smaller teammates. Adrian Dater in an article in the Denver Post refers to "Faustian Bargain" of the NHL fighter.

This is not exactly the environment that would encourage players with mental health issues to come forward and seek treatment. Even if it is all confidential, these guys aren't going to take that risk. No wonder hardly anyone knew how much Belak was suffering.

Hockey spokespersons like Don Cherry don't help. He loves the image of the big tough Canadian kid. Depression?! That makes you a momma's boy. It's obvious the image is false. They are like everyone else. They suffer from anxiety, self-doubt and even depression. In fact, there appears to be a link between blows to the brain's frontal lobe and depression.

So who is watching over the enforcers while they watch over their teammates? No one. Do we really need fighting in hockey? There really isn't any in the playoffs. The playoffs doesn't appear to be wimpy games played by pacifists. If eliminating fighting improves the quality of life of players and ex-players and saves a few lives, isn't it worth it?

But more importantly, maybe the coverage on sports radio shows will encourage listeners who are reluctant to seek treatment to get some help. TSN's Michael Landsberg who suffers from depression has been very open about his illness. He was very close with Belak and was one of the few people who knew about the demon's inside Belak's head this past few years. More people need to step forward. It can save lives.

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