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Best of the Daily Dish: Brain Injuries linked to Depression, Suicide Junior Hockey News

Published: Tuesday, 12 Feb 2019  
By: Stephen Heisler, JuniorHockey.com


How would the hockey world react if one of our superstars laid down in front of a train and took his own life, after he hid his depression from everyone outside of his family?

That is exactly what a German soccer star did in 2009.

His widow later told the press that he was concerned about the possibility of losing his adopted child if the public, and press, discovered he had been treated for depression since 2003, after his two-year-old daughter lost a battle to cancer.

Don't hit the back button yet, this is going to turn into a serious hockey story. Just hold on and continue reading. You can help save the life of a friend, or even your own.

Clinical depression has taken a toll on the game of hockey on numerous occasions.  Ron Ellis, Sheldon Kennedy,  and Stephane Richer are just a few of the notable names. Players form all levels and ages need to know there are options for them to address the illness.

Theo Fleury wrote about depression in his book, he writes about an attempted suicide where he put a loaded gun into his mouth to go along with a major dependency that led to an overdose in 1999.

"I was thinking, 'I have finally accomplished what I have wanted to accomplish for a long time," Fleury described the overdose. " 'I am going to die.' "

If a guy like Fleury can reveal his own battle with depression, and that dealing with it caused him to turn his back on his love for the game and the love of his family, none of us are beyond the grip of the illness.  Most importantly, we should not be ashamed to be afflicted with it. It is that shame that is thought to be the driving force and cause of suicide.

The National Hockey League, as an employer, is a leader when it comes to mental health care.

"The league does a great job with their player programs," said NHL Alumni Association executive director Mark Napier. "It's certainly a lot better than it was 20 or 30 years ago. They try and keep players' best interests at heart and get them help as soon as they can.  With the alumni, we're in the same mode as they are, although with us sometimes you don't hear about issues with guys until it is too late. But the more guys talk about depression and mental issues, the less there'll be a stigma attached to it, and more will come forward and ask for help."

Michael Landsberg has been the host of Off The Record (OTR), TSN's highly acclaimed 30-minute daily sports debate show, since the show's debut in September 1997. Always trying to see the world of sports through the fans' eyes, Landsberg asks his guests tough, thought-provoking and controversial questions on the day's hottest sports topics.

One of the best-known personalities in Canadian broadcasting, Landsberg has been with TSN since the network's inception in 1984. He started his broadcasting career as an anchor on SportsCentre (then called SportsDesk), and went on to host more than 5,000 episodes. Thirteen years later, Landsberg left SportsCentre to host OTR.

Landsberg has been open about his own battle with the depression.

 "We got such an outpouring and it was every reaction you could imagine," Landsberg said. "People would write, 'Wow, I never really wanted to talk about depression, I was always afraid and kept it inside,' or 'It's really weird hearing people talking about it - aren't you afraid to speak out?' Well, hell, no, why would I be afraid to say it?

"How could you think that? I've never hid it. I made a conscious decision about five or six years ago to share it with anyone I thought it was appropriate to share with. Would we ever hesitate to tell someone we had an appendectomy? You'd never be embarrassed to say something like that, but with depression, it's different. So it's really, really important for me to talk about it."

If you are surprised that men like Landsberg, Fleury, and Richer are subject to depression despite their individual successes, you do not understand the disease.

"I always describe what it feels like to be depressed as something where you know, in your head, that no matter what happens the rest of the day, you're still going to be miserable," Landsberg said. "Part of the problem is the language we use to describe it, because we use the word 'depression' for other things.

"Some people think depression means 'sad,' and then the question becomes, 'Why are you sad, Michael? You've got a great family and a great job.' But that's not what depression is. You need another word for it, because depression is pain of the soul."

"And the comments from the soccer star's wife, who said he was worried about losing his friends and his child, that just tells you that there's thousands of people who don't feel like they've got the ability to come out and tell people. To me, that's bizarre. And that's what's sad."

Landsberg developed a close friendship with Wade Belak, a friendship that had grown to a casualness that he now wishes to take back.  

"E-mail, texting and instant messaging all have places in our lives. But I believe I have relied too much on them, often replacing personal contact with letters and words and symbols that are like the Buckingham Palace Grenadier Guards - conveying no emotion, revealing no subtlety. They are zombies devoid of anything meaningful outside of the obvious," Landsberg wrote in an article about his common battle with his friend.

"How many times have you wondered, while reading a text, whether someone was serious or joking, sarcastic or straight? Have you ever wondered when you ask someone how they are, whether fine really means fine?" Landsberg continued.

"Fine written in text always looks the same, but in person, on the phone, fine can reveal so much more. I am having a tough time forgiving myself for texting Wade seven days before he died and accepting his fine. Wade was my buddy. That didn't make me unique. Wade was everyone's buddy. Even guys he fought with on the ice liked him. Even guys he scored on liked him, even if that list is pretty short. He was the definition of the big fat jolly guy without the fat. Honestly, I don't know a soul who met Wade who didn't immediately like him. He made friends the way most people pick up germs -- gathering more every time he touched someone," Landsberg wrote.

"I knew Wade walked with a limp. I knew it because he spoke to me about it. I have the same limp. It's how I refer to depression that doesn't disable us - even though we feel it every step of our lives.  Wade's limp, however, was worse than I knew. Seven days before he died, we chatted on e-mail. He had heard an interview I did for TSN Radio about my own depression and he had written, It was good.  I wrote back jokingly, Did you feel sorry for me, that's what I was looking for. He responded, I thought you were a big pussy. Ha ha. Who am I to say? I've been on happy pills for 4-5 years now." Landberg writes. "I wrote back, And how are you?  And Wade wrote back, Fine. Seven days later he was gone."

"I'm looking at my hands. I don't see any blood, but it's there. Luminol won't show it, but my conscience does," Landsberg continues.  "Out, damned spot; Out I say. It's not that easy."

Landsberg went on. "I felt that I knew Wade in a different way than almost anyone else. I knew that his perma-smile was at least partially manufactured. I knew that his constant cheeriness was at least partially faked. It felt good to know this because I too, have done the same things. In that way Wade was the guy I related to perhaps better than anyone in my life. We were both good at fooling people. Like most depression sufferers we are counterfeiters in human emotion. We create fake happiness and for that reason sometimes people can't spot what's truly happening inside."

"When Wade and I were texting on August 24th, he inquired about the documentary I am working on, which is about celebrities with depression. He said, Are you going put me on? I asked, would you consider sharing your illness with the public? His exact words were, I don't think I would have a problem going public with it."

Belak told Landsberg that he did not even think his parents really knew and had no idea just how public he would go with his depression.

Nobody knows what exactly triggered Belak's decision to end his own life. People make that choice when the fear of another moment outweighs the fear of dying. Landsberg feels that Belak was struck by a tsunami of depression. Love and family no longer made sense and for Belak, it was over. The battle was lost.

I am sitting here on the couch as I write, watching my children play, and have to wonder how a parent makes a choice to leave his kids.

Landsberg writes, "I don't know the answer, but I do know this; I pray that you and I won't ever figure it out. Some things you don't want to know. And some things you can't ever judge. You don't think you know what Sept. 11 felt like on American Airlines flight 175 as it roared towards the World Trade Center, do you? So can you really say what you would have done?  You don't know what it was like to be marched to your death in Auschwitz, so can you really say what you would have done? And you don't know what my buddy was thinking when it made sense to him to leave all that he loved. So can you really say what you would have done?"

I spent a few hours one Saturday night (2011) talking with Belak's aunt and uncle while they were visiting friends in Arizona. They are suffering from the loss of their nephew.  Belak loved life as much as anyone.  His love for his family, wife Jen and their girls, Andie and Alex, was evident to everyone that knew and loved him.

The depression drowned out all the love and joy and replaced it with pain. The friend, nephew, father, and husband who had everything to live for, died in a sea of sadness.

Suicide becomes the ultimate relief from the nagging pain of the depression. Landsberg says that suicide is what happens when the angel of death and the angel of mercy start working together.

Belak's family hopes that his story sheds light on the illness. "We did not know he was having problems, if we had, we all would have been there for him because we loved him so much." His aunt said.  "We are all so proud of him. Not because he was a great hockey player, but because he was such a great person, and great to Jen and the girls."

Belak gave his all to the game and now the game needs to give something back. We need to respect the seriousness of depression and all work to recognize the symptoms of the disease. Most of all, we need to believe in the magnitude of the suffering.

Depression is not a broken arm. We can't really see it. The Cat-Scan is not going to detect it.

As a sport, let's not tell each other to just snap out of it or ask someone what they have to be depressed about. We need to accept depression as a serious, and often fatal, illness.

I asked Belak's family about his injuries, the possibility of untreated concussions, and if he was on pain medication. His uncle confirmed that Belak suffered from chronic pain as the result of his serious knee injury.  There are a few drugs that are prescribed to reduce inflammation that are known to cause depression. Landsberg touches on Belak's admission to taking happy pills. It is unknown if the anti-inflammatory medications led to the happy pill prescriptions. Opiods have been used to moderate severe pain, but have a high potential for abuse and addiction. They are also known to cause depression.

In 2007, the University of North Carolina clinically studied the health survey of 2,552 retired National Football League players and determined that the rate of diagnosed clinical depression among the athletes is strongly correlated with the number of concussions sustained. The study also reached findings regarding brain trauma and later-life depression in other subsets of the general population.

The study found that of the 595 players who recalled sustaining three or more concussions on the football field, 20.2% said they had been found to have depression.

Boston University neurosurgeon Robert Cantu and his team examined the brains of deceased National Hockey League enforcers Reggie Fleming and Bob Probert. The researchers found that both had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by blunt impact to the head. They also examined the brain of former NFL player Dave Duerson, after he committed suicide, and discovered that he also had CTE.

In 2010-2011, the NHL has lost three players with a history, or are suspected of suffering  concussions. Dan Boogaard died in May from a combination of pain killers and alcohol. Rick Rypien was found on August 15th in his home in Alberta, he died from an apparent suicide. Two weeks later, Belak was found by housekeeping staff in a Toronto hotel room.

Lorraine Belak, Wade's mother, confirmed to CBC that her son suffered from depression. Rypien also dealt with the disease.

Cantu told CBC that anytime he hears about a player that commits suicide, with a history of concussions, he believes that CTE has played a role. Hockey enforcers have told Cantu that are often afraid of reporting post-concussion symptoms to the training staff because of the real fear of being replaced.

This issue is also personal. I was hospitalized on numerous occasions with head injuries early in life, but it was a car accident back in 1994 that sent my life into a continuous spin. Habitual use of over-the-counter pain medication, and not heading the max dosage warnings, caused a nearly catastrophic kidney illness that led to renal cell carcinoma in 2014.

That illness, and the sudden loss of my children (do to separation), sent me into a cycle of darkness that pushed the will to fight to the depths of my consciousness. I had given up. It was at that point when I realized the battle with the illness and depression did not have to be fought alone. 

Some of the credit for victory goes to the doctors and medical staff, that's only fair. But it was faith that made the biggest difference. That belief that no battle was unwinnable, the fear of not seeing my children again, and the knowing that there was so much more to live for persevered. 

To this day, headaches plague my existence. The difference is the approach to eliminating the effects has altered greatly. Meanwhile, the depression is suppressed with entirely different remedy. The love and affection of my wife and family.

In the past, I have been a proponent of keeping the fight in our game. That position is not going to change. With that said, we need make sure that our training staffs are doing their part to identify head injuries.

As team mates, friends, and family, we need to keep an eye on the tough guys, and those people we know who are at risk of depression.

Junior players have a difficult time of understanding the long-term consequences of any injury. Call it youthfulness, or call it part of the culture of the game.  We need to follow Sydney Crosby's lead, making sure that the return from a brain injury is never rushed.

If you have read all of this, you love the game. Let's all work together to give all of these kids every opportunity to play, heal, and live.


Author: Stephen Heisler from JuniorHockey.com
Stephen Heisler has spent a lifetime in the game of hockey. Stephen is also working with individual teams, coaches, and players as a director with Victorious Hockey Company. Stephen, his wife Deysi, and four children reside in Orlando, Florida.


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