By Ian Webster, courtesy of the Merritt Herald.
The Canadian Mental Health Association and the British Columbia Hockey League have announced a new partnership aimed at helping young junior-aged players cope with the on and off-ice mental, emotional and physical challenges of competing in a high level of hockey away from home.
The two organizations have launched an initiative called Talk Today — a mental health support program designed for BCHL players and their supporters to learn about mental health issues, and increase their skills in order to assist players who may be struggling or at risk of suicide.
“We are excited to partner with the BCHL, to help their athletes connect with the mental health supports and resources they need to thrive,” said Bev Gutray, CEO of CMHA BC.
The Talk Today program is one of the most comprehensive mental health programs for amateur sport in Canada. It consists of several components, including mental health and suicide awareness workshops, one-to-one mental health coaches, and Talk Today community awareness events.
“The BC Hockey League strives to be the best Junior A hockey league in North America,” BCHL commissioner John Grisdale said. “For us, that means supporting the physical and mental health of our athletes, as well as reaching out to our communities and helping support causes we care about through initiatives like Talk Today.”
At the heart of Talk Today is the relationship between each of the 17 BCHL teams and their local CMHA branches. Each community will have a trained CMHA mental health navigator, an individual who will serve as a liaison between the two parties and will help provide referrals to community mental health and addictions support.
“Each year, our network of branches in B.C. helps over 120,000 people, including children and youth, families and older adults,” Gutray said. “Talk Today will help strengthen those community connections, and reach new audiences with the message that mental health is possible for all.”
The announcement comes as welcome news to athletes like 16-year-old rising hockey star Myles Mattila. The Kelowna youngster has been a mental health advocate for several years following two impactful events in his life — when he didn’t know how to help one of his teammates who was experiencing mental health issues, and the death of former Vancouver Canucks’ player Rick Rypien.
“Mental health affects everyone no matter what age you are, and youth and athletes are no exception,” Mattila said. “My teammate suddenly changed. His temper grew short, his actions were irrational, and he began to be very negative. Nothing could cheer him up.”
Mattila said that player is now doing much better and getting help and support.
“It’s encouraging to see programs like Talk Today being implemented to help make a difference and show everyone that it’s okay to talk about mental health and mental illness,” Mattila said.
Rob DeClark, chair of the BCHL’s player support program said they want to end the labeling and provide help when a player shows he is vulnerable and having issues.
“It will help reduce the stigma,” he said. “Each team will have a representative from CMHA, and at any time a player can confidentially access that support, and access it quickly.”
DeClark noted that young junior hockey players feel a lot of pressure as they try to advance their careers and maybe even get a hockey scholarship to an American college or university.
“There have been many high-profile cases that have ended tragically,” he said.
Talk Today stems from a pilot program that was first organized by the Peterborough Petes major junior hockey club in Ontario back in March of 2014.
Twenty-four players and coaches participated in a workshop, safeTALK, which helps teach individuals the importance of talking about mental health, how to acknowledge signs of suicide, how to seek help when they’re in need of support, and how to connect others in need of support with mental health resources.
In the fall of the same year, the Ontario Hockey League and the CMHA announced a partnership to implement the Talk Today initiative.
“Mental illness directly or indirectly affects everyone at some point in their life,” OHL commissioner David Branch said at the time of the announcement of the partnership.
Merritt Centennials head coach and GM Joe Martin welcomed the news of the CMHA/BCHL joint initiative.
“I’m very happy our league has entered into this large partnership. Going back to all the dressing rooms I’ve been in, I’m sure there was always a teammate of mine or a player that I’ve coached who could have used a bit more help.
“We all need people to talk with. High level athletes always feel stressed by their performance. Another partner to talk to can only help.
“Here in Merritt we are lucky. We have great people who are attached to our organization who already provide substantial support. Dave MaCaulay is our team chaplain. He’s always checking in with staff and players, and not just watching boxscores. He’s always wondering how are the players and coaches doing.
“Outside of Dave there is more help here, too. The citizens and fans in Merritt really care. I like that.
“Adding this large new partner to our local support group is a huge plus,” Martin said.