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Babcock, Leafs, Focus on Mental Health Awareness

Within the past half-decade or so, most of us have learned more about mental health issues than we might have imagined we would even a decade ago.

by Adam Proteau / MapleLeafs.com

We've come to understand mental illness doesn't discriminate based on race, class, gender or any other label. We know now that, even if someone presents an image of strength and confidence, they could be suffering on the inside.

And we also know that, even the public figures to whom we look as role models - athletes, entertainers, etc. - aren't immune from mental illness. They have enviable elements of their lifestyles that might cause some to wonder what they'd have to be upset about, but that line of thinking indicates a lack of awareness about what mental health challenges are really about: a neurological, chemical imbalance, and a social stigma that, in combination, make some people unable or unwilling to seek help.

That latter fact is changing for the better, thankfully - and in part, it's because of initiatives such as Bell Let's Talk Day. The Canada-wide event, scheduled this year for Wed., Jan. 25, is now in its seventh year, and has clearly made a massive impact, not only in terms of funds raised (every text, tweet or social media interaction with the #BellLetsTalk hashtag will result in Bell donating five cents toward mental health programmes), but on the lives of people from all walks of life. And that includes the life of Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock.

"Bell Let's Talk is about opening up and talking, but I think we've come many, many miles in this area and we're more compassionate and understanding," Babcock said after a recent Leafs practice. "Mental illness affects one in every five Canadians, so if you think about that, that means four (players) in my dressing room alone, must be affected in some way."

The statistic to which Babcock referred is stark and staggering, but the positive news is organizations (sports and otherwise) are better-equipped to engage with and assist people struggling with mental health problems. Counselling, medication and simple education packages are tools employed in the fight, and the change in attitudes is clear and dramatic. 

"I just think it's grown," veteran Leafs centre Tyler Bozak said of mental health awareness. "It wasn't much talked about when I first came in. It was just kind of one of those things you just kind of slid under the rug, and let someone deal with it on their own. But if anyone ever has a problem, I think it's more open now. People aren't afraid to talk to someone or get advice or get help. And I think it's only going to get better, too."

Bozak came into the NHL in the 2009-10 season, and the 30-year-old is happy to see the differences in the way mental illnesses are addressed. And for a younger player like defenceman Connor Carrick - one of the more conscientious, eloquent players in the Leafs' dressing room - the more open attitudes in regard to mental well-being doesn't go unappreciated in a business that has its own types of pressures and stresses. 

"Mental health, it's something that's hard for people to deal with, it's hard for families and people outside of it to empathize maybe for someone who's dealing with it," said Carrick, I'd describe myself as someone who's pretty steady, but I know what goes on in my head at the end of the day and it's a lot. Different pressures. I'm very fortunate to live the life I do, but for a lot of people, it can be tough sometimes when you get in a cycle. It affects everyone differently, and it's finally getting the attention it should."

The average sports fan might look at an NHL player's salary and presume it gives them a carefree lifestyle, but the reality is much different. For most NHLers, there's always the sense their job is insecure, or their place within an organization isn't carved in stone and they can be traded away from family and friends in a moment's notice. And those are just some of the concerns that can weigh on an athlete beyond the simple math of wins and losses. But that's where the camaraderie of a team environment comes in, Carrick said. Fans and media won't see it, but teammates can be there for one another in a meaningful way that will make a difference long after their on-ice careers are over.

"It's something that I think you realize when a teammate goes through it," Carrick said of mental health issues among athletes. "It's nothing said. You can tell by body language and how someone acts. And it's your job as a teammate to be in tune with your buddies and pick them up. I know at different times this year I've gotten picked up by guys on our team. There are certain guys that seem to pick up on my own cues and things like that. 

"There's a lot that goes on in everybody's life. Everyone has a lot of thoughts in the day - a lot of things going on - family pressures, social pressures, financial issues, whatever - and it's something that the stigma of going week is being detached from mental illness. I think that's a step in the right direction."

"There's a lot of times guys aren't feeling too good about themselves, or you can be in a tough stretch as an individual or as a team," Bozak added. "And it's hard not to hang your head and stay positive. We've got a lot of guys in here who can help bring each other up and stay positive."

Babcock's increased focus on mental health came after he lost two close friends to the problem a few years back. But he's also hyper-aware of the dangers of mental illness that are out there and that have the potential to affect anyone - even those closest to him.

"As your kids get older and they leave your house, you can think (of) nothing worse than them suffering in silence, they've got things not going good in their life and they're not sharing it," Babcock said. "When you educate yourself and you can listen a little bit, and you're compassionate and you can talk to people, it's amazing what just having someone to talk to is about. I have a great friend in my wife, I know I'm a better person because she's around and i've got someone to talk to."

Bell Let's Talk ambassador and Canadian Olympic gold medalist Clara Hughes stands out for Babcock as an example of the impact of and courage involved in confronting the issue directly - and of de-stigmatizing it, both inside and outside the sports world. That's why they're both energized participants in the process.

"When you think of someone like Clara Hughes, as mentally tough of an athlete as she is and was, she had mental illness, so mental toughness and mental illness have nothing to with one another," Babcock said. "Today's world is way different, and what was accepted 10 years ago and the norm and what's accepted now is way different. It affects everybody, but we can all have a great life. Some of us have high blood pressure, so we take some medication, and no one thinks nothing of that. So I don't know why there's a stigma with mental health."

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