The surprising and rather shocking, unsuspected death of 27 year-old Winnipeg Jet Rick Rypien took the city off-guard. This wasn't just another hockey player to us, we saw him play with the Manitoba Moose, we saw him grind it out trying to make it as a full-time NHL player with the Vancouver Canucks. And then we saw him return to play for our brand new team. A Cinderella story in the making, it can't get much more romantic than that.
Much of the talk in the media surrounding his death is about his “dark emotions,” and about how we have to “end the stigma” regarding mental illness. Except nothing has been done about it, and the media, particularly local media, has done nothing but support the current culture of “stigma” as people like to call it. I call it ignorance.
I am in a unique position to comment on this as I am intimately knowledgeable about the mental health community, what goes on, what people's reactions to illnesses are, and the once-in-a-while heavy heart that arises when someone commits suicide, only to turn back to their old ways after exiting our very short-term memories. My favourite saying goes something like “everyone has a mental illness these days.”
After initial shock, media raced around to obtain quotes and statements from players that knew or roomed with Rypien. All were the same. That he “seemed like he was in a good place” and that he “seemed happy” and etcetera, etcetera. Winnipeg Jets GM stated he felt that they were “making progress.”
No media outlet even dared breathe the word “depression” initially, it was like a rumour. Even though his agent, and at least two GM's were fully aware of Rypien's problems.
The CBC reported that Rypien battled personal issues, with an abominabally irresponsible statement from his agent deflecting the question, saying “sometimes we forget everyone has their own issues to deal with on a daily basis.” What makes this irresponsible, is making the connection between everyone's daily problems, and someone with major depression on the brink of ending their own life. See how gravely ignorant “everyone has a mental illness these days” can be?
A Metro headline read, incredulously, Rypien seemed happy in weeks before death, which is strait out of the “how a depressed person portrays themselves 101” handbook. Gary Lawless in the Winnipeg Free Press headline read “Ultimate teammate hid his dark emotions” and only in the subheadline mentions depression. Hiding emotions and seeming happy go hand in hand.
Two days after his death, Gary Lawless, playing the part of an ignorant stigma-purpotrater to a T, pens a column linking Rypien's death to his on-ice fisticuffs. They go “hand in hand,” he says, the link is “undeniable,” Lawless tells us.** Without class, Lawless uses this baseless asumption that fighting in all cases leads to depression, to opportunistically lambaste Don Cherry. Ludicrous. Disgusting, from my point of view. What Lawless, or Rypien's agent, or anybody won't confirm, is what we really need to know, the first step to – really – ending the “stigma,” that Rypien committed suicide.
A 27-year old professional athlete does not drop dead for no reason. Had it been a heart condition or medical problem, it would have surfaced right away. Had it been an overdose, as in Derek Boogard's case, it would have also come out. But the real reason is too much of a hard truth, and the “stigma” remains just that. It is intentional to keep this hidden, nobody wants to talk about it. Five days after his death, it is still reported as “not suspicious.” Nobody wants to confront it. And the truth is, hard truths are difficult to tackle.
Rypien had depression for at least a decade.
You aren't cured from depression or any mental illness in a handful of weeks or months. It is ongoing. There are regressions. Setbacks. Medication. Therapy, change in therapist, change in doctors, change in medication. And that is if everything is going just fine, in a safe, secure environment. Rypien's was far from safe and secure.
Bouncing around the NHL, AHL, between cities, away from any support networks he might have, would have only exacerbated his situation, inhibiting any possibility of a solid recovery. The lack of a real friend, not just a roomate. But at ten years, it can easily be said that this kind of depression, is not the kind that ever gets cured. This was no doubt a lifelong illness.
Rick's best bet was to take time off, visit and stay at a mental health facility, such as Selkirk. The very same one that houses Vince Li, the very same facility that many an outraged Manitoban insisted a permanent wall or fence be built to keep the mentally ill imprisoned inside, circa 19th century Russia.
The horror. As the CBC reported in June 2010, “Currently, there is not even a fence around the grounds.” Not even a fence!
Here's a hard truth-ism for everyone. There is little in this world that is more horrifying or personally tragic than personally knowing somebody who has comitted suicide. It is unexpected, and many won't even be aware of a mental illness-related infliction. One day you're a 27 year-old professional athlete. The next day, you aren't around. The weight of how horrifying and tragic this is can be “measured” almost in a qunatitative fashion if you will, by the extent of the media coverage on the incident. Especially here, in Winnipeg. It was as if we lost a member of our own family.
So what can be done? Aside from Winnipeg Jets GM insisting he will take steps to adress these issues, whatever that means. What can really be done? There are a few things that need to happen, and when these things do (and they most likely will never) happen, the media and even maybe Gary Lawless in particular, can do their part as journalists and redirect the public perception of mental illness and alter the direction of “stigma” talk in professional sport.
The first step, is to admit that Rypien committed suicide. His family, his agent, need to communicate the end result of his battle with major depression.
From that, the media and journalists can communicate how serious of an issue this can be, and that the consequences are more than serious. It could result in a hockey player never realizing his full potential. Or ending his career. Or worse, ending his own life. The focus cannot be on “how happy he seemed” and other such things from casual observers. All the stereotypical responses can start to be deconstructed and taken apart. “Everyone has a mental illness these days” is simply a joke. Say that to Rypien. Say that to Hannover goalkeeper Robert Enke, who committed suicide in 2009.
To help the media, some basic numbers might be of assistance to highlight just how thick a rug these things are being swept under. Not the “undeniable” medical opinions of sports journos. Conservatively, depression affects 9% of the population of the US. Of that, 3% of those people commit suicide. Let us translate these numbers to the NHL, using just the number of players a team can dress, at 20. That would mean the pool of NHL players we're talking about is 600. Nine percent of that means that approximately 54 players are living with depression as per the US National average. And of those 54...1.6 are at risk of committing suicide. In other words, almost two players per team are “hiding their dark emotions,” and at least one player at any one time in the NHL, could be on the brink.
Lastly, the most important step. Someone in the NHL, a player, an alumni, a GM, a coach, needs to come forward, enter the spotlight, and disclose their personal story of how mental illness has affected them as a person and as a player.
Not a single NHL player has come out and said that they themselves also live with depression, or any other mental illness that affects their day-to-day lives.
Not. A single. Person.
You'd think with all the players running charities for kids with cancer and poverty and the like, somebody might step up for the mental health comunity in a big way.
Nothing would be more impactful than to have an NHL player talk about their condition. Not only to other players with similar stories, but to a nation that follows hockey more closely than we follow our country's politics. This would do more than any, ANY sports journalist claiming to want to end the stigma, to address the problems, then move on to lists of quotes from teammates about how happy someone seemed to be. And, it would do more to put a huamn face on the plight of mental illness, to break down the barriers between people with more serious mental disabilities. Nobody would dare suggest Rick Rypien be housed in Selkirk for treatment...if only it had a barbed wire fence around it.
See how far just one person from the NHL acting as a spokesperson could be...
Like Clara Hughes. Almost un-arguably Canada's most decorated athlete.
More relevant to hockey however, let's remember one of the greatest players of the game. Another Winnipegger. None other than the legendary Terry Sawchuk. These people's struggles shouldn't be in vain. But they are. And it will take the community of sports journalists across the country, Rypien's family, his agent, the management of the Winnipeg Jets, and at least one current player stepping up, to reverse course.
I'll end this piece with a quote from Vancouver GM Mark Gillis, which puts so many things into so succinct a statement.
“ For everything he had accomplished in his life, it's remarkable that that's how powerful his illness was."
**Lawless, in his short-sightedness, conveniently forgot to talk about another recent enforcer death, Bobby Probert. Probert did not die of depression-related or fighting-related conditions. And Probert, one of the most legendary fighters in the game, probably threw and took more punches than Rypien and Boogard combined. Guess that “undeniable link” has some holes in it. Back to med school, Gary.