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Maple Leafs stand up to mental health stigma with #HockeyTalks Night

by Jillian Vieira /

"It's okay to not be okay." "Be kind to yourself." "You are not alone."

These are just some of the sentiments shared by the Maple Leafs players following the club's Hockey Talks Mental Health Awareness Night last Friday, the ninth annual event aimed at dismantling the stigma surrounding mental health. Through their partnership with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH)-Canada's leading mental health teaching and research hospital-it's their hope to keep the conversation open and shift attitudes in the process. 

Research tells us that a staggering one in five people will be affected by mental health issues over their lifetime. That means there's a good chance you know someone, whether it's your co-worker, neighbour, family member or teammate in your rec league, who might be facing adversity in silence. 

Despite the mood-boosting endorphins that come with scoring the game-winning goal or making a big save in front of a home crowd, professional hockey players and other athletes aren't immune to mental well-being challenges. And unlike a knee injury that could sideline a player for weeks on the IR, issues related to psychological well-being-spurred on by outside pressures, unrealistic goals or training burnout-often go untreated. 

One reason for this silent struggle? Stigma, perhaps the biggest barrier to diagnosis and eventual treatment. In the past, admitting that you might be having a hard time mentally was perceived as weakness. Thankfully, this outdated way of thinking is undergoing major change. 

Maple Leafs players like Alexander Kerfoot have been open about leaning on those around him to get through tough times. During his academics-packed NCAA playing days at Harvard, the 26-year-old forward took comfort in knowing that others were experiencing hardship alongside him. 

"I was dealing with the same stuff as a bunch of my friends and teammates, and we were able to bounce ideas off one another and share in the experience," he said last year. 

Receiving much-needed mental health support isn't just reserved for athletes. Now more than ever, as the pandemic presents new challenges that touch every part of our lives, we're all in need of compassion and empathy. 

To combat social isolation, try staying connected through alternative channels of communication, like video chat, phone calls or messaging apps. Being a good listener for a loved one throughout this time can also do wonders: experts at CAMH suggest asking them about their general health, finding tasks you might be able to assist with or helping them to structure their day with meaningful activities they can do from home. 

Ultimately, the Maple Leafs #HockeyTalks initiative is a reminder that when it comes to our mental health, we're never alone. It's something that forward Zach Hyman understands well, especially after having relied on his teammates plus friends and family to overcome the stresses of sustaining injuries in the past. 

"I think that now, everybody realizes that people-no matter who you are-go through adversity," he said last year. "To have the ability to reach out and lean on your support system is really important." 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling, check out these helpful mental health resources.

We can all play a role in reducing stigma. Some tips include:

  • Be aware of the labels and language that you use
  • Imagine 'walking in the shoes' of a person who faces stigma
  • Monitor media and speak out against stigmatizing material
  • Speak up about stigma to friends, family and colleagues
  • Be aware of your own attitudes and judgments
  • Support organizations that fight stigma
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