Even the toughest guys inevitably encounter a foe tougher than they are. Hockey player Rick Rypien was tough but depression was tougher, and he took his life this month. His death shows how important it is, in sport and in the wider society, to continue talking about and trying to de-stigmatize mental illness and suicide. And it shows how silly and destructive are the myths that persist – “if only depressed people would toughen up.”
Mr. Rypien, of Crowsnest Pass, Alta., was as tough as they come. He wasn’t drafted for the National Hockey League, and he made it. At 5’ 11’’ and 190 pounds, he became an “enforcer” – a fighter – and fought the behemoth Hal Gill, 6’7’’ and 241 pounds, to a standstill. (“Get a ladder,” the announcer commented.) The 27-year-old had 39 NHL fights. (He had signed to play with the Winnipeg Jets this coming season.)
Four thousand people take their own lives each year in Canada, and many of them, like Mr. Rypien, are outwardly successful, tough and well-liked. After Mr. Rypien’s death, those who knew him commented on how they had no idea how he had been feeling. Perhaps the stereotypes around mental illness prevent us from truly seeing, understanding and reaching one another.
“There’s no reason, if we apply conventional wisdom, that this should happen,” says Bill Wilkerson, who is an authority of mental health in the workplace and who served as adviser to NHL commissioner John Ziegler in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He points to a sense of isolation, even when among friends or family, and a loss of meaning, among those who take their own lives. “Popularity is not the antidote to that sense of emotional isolation, where you’re feeling increasingly isolated from why you’re doing what you’re doing – in this case, playing hockey every night.” To break through that isolation, Mr. Wilkerson proposes peer support for pro hockey players, and counselling programs that begin in minor hockey.
If it can happen to a tough guy like Rick Rypien, it can happen to anyone.