Wade Belak, Rick Rypien, and Mental Illness: Sometimes You Lose the War…

Belak
Belak clowns with former teammate Dan Hamhuis during the 2011 playoffs. (picture courtesy of The Post)

By James Phieffer – Special to TheHockeyWriters.com

I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Wade Belak. I didn’t know him, but when I heard he had taken his own life, I realized I understood him.

Suicide is the most extreme symptom of mental illness. And that is something I know, having dealt with it since my teenage years. I understand where he was, because I’ve been there, and remain here only by the grace of God. As to why he isn’t, that is a question which I don’t know the answer to.

I was looking at some biographies of Mr Belak as I began writing this. He sounded like a great guy. A proud father of two daughters, husband to Jennifer. A man who was as renowned for his easygoing sense of humour off the ice as for his intimidating physical presence on it. While his on ice hockey career was done, he had a position with the Nashville Predators organization. Externally, at least, he had it all.

But something that must be understood about mental illness is that it is an invisible illness. While such serious physical illnesses as cancer or muscular dystrophy show themselves through various physical symptoms, the symptoms of mental illness are mostly hidden inside.

So the only way you’ll know if the person you work with, that you meet on the street, or watch on the ice or ball diamond is dealing with any form of mental illness is if they share the fact with you. But as advanced as we think our society to be, mental illness is a handicap that is too often misunderstood, and occasionally discriminated against.

When I read the story about Belak’s passing this inability, or at times disinterest, in understanding mental illness was brought to the fore by some comments which were critical of Belak for abandoning his family through his suicide, as if he made a conscious, rational decision to do so. From my own experience, responses to finding out that I deal with mental illness (depression and anxiety) vary from questioning my mental capabilities and sanity to a pejorative view, where any accomplishments are deserving of a pat on the head (“i.e. that’s so nice, someone like you doing that…”). And the latter is almost as bad as the former.

The inability of people to understand mental illness also has manifested itself in some of the commentary surrounding the deaths of Belak and Rick

Rick Rypien (Wikimedia Commons)

Rypien (and Derek Boogard, although I have not seen anything to indicate his death was caused by mental illness). Too many columnists have used these tragedies to move forward anti-fighting agendas, assuming that too many blows to the head have caused irreparable damage, leading to suicides.

Is it possible that injuries sustained in fights played a role in the lead up to these tragedies? That may never be known. But to assume this is the case is to use his death as a tool to move forward a particular agenda – and in this case one which distracts from what can be seen to be fact – not just supposition.

So let’s deal with a few facts, from the Canadian Mental Health Association:

  • Suicide accounts for 24% of all deaths among 15-24 year olds, and 16% among those from 25 to 44.
  • More than half a million persons aged 15 and over (2.2%) reported having activity limitations due to emotional, psychological or psychiatric conditions. An additional 1.8% had activity limitations due to frequent memory problems or periods of confusion.
  • Stress and mental health-related problems currently represent 40-50% of the short-term disability claims among employees of some of Canada’s largest corporations.
  • The Canadian economy loses an estimated $30 billion a year in productivity due to mental illness and addiction problems.

While mental illness is becoming better understood, and as a result persons such as myself are able to go public with our battles, more needs to be

done. There need to be support services available with lower wait times. Employers need to commit to treating those dealing with mental illness in as open and considerate a manner as has become common – and expected – for those who deal with physical disabilities.

And people need to realize that mental illness does not mean a person is insane, broken, loony, or whatever other derogatory term has been directed at the mentally ill over the years. We are people who seek to live whole and productive lives. We have aims and goals. And we are capable of making major contributions to society at all levels.

But sometimes we lose battles. And sadly, occasionally we lose the war.

Wade Belak, from everything written and said about him by those who knew him, was an exemplary human being, a gentle giant who, while intimidating on the ice, was recognized by children as a good soul. To see his life ended this way is truly sad. Two little girls now go to bed without their Daddy. His wife is left to deal with the fallout, the questions. His parents have experienced that most painfully absurd of situations – outliving their child.

To them, my thoughts and prayers are with you, as are I’m sure those of the many Canadians who struggle with mental illness every day.

Mike Flanagan, a former star pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays, took his own life August 24, 2011