When assistant coach Rob De Clark first told members of the Cowichan Capitals junior hockey team they could come by his office and talk if they ever felt stressed, he figured one or two players might show up.
But by season's end, Mr. De Clark had met with all of them.
"Every single player had come in to talk to me at one point or another about the struggles that they had in terms of the pressures of trying to get a scholarship, being away from home, the wins and the losses that take their tolls," he said. "I was quite surprised by the number of people that were in my office talking."
The B.C. Hockey League and the Canadian Mental Health Association's B.C. division announced a plan Tuesday to increase the mental-health support available to players on the league's 17 teams, calling the plan one of the most comprehensive mental-health programs for amateur sports in Canada. Each team will have a CMHA liaison who can provide referrals to mental-health and addictions support. The league will also hold a mental-health day and launch an education program.
The announcement comes amid heightened concern about mental-health issues involving youths and athletes. The news conference was held at Rogers Arena, home of the National Hockey League's Vancouver Canucks.
Former Canuck Rick Rypien died by suicide in 2011 and one of the speakers at Tuesday's event said he was spurred to action in part by Mr. Rypien's story.
Mr. De Clark, who first told his players they could talk to him about stress or other mental-health issues five years ago, said, "there's a culture that has existed for years that doesn't make it okay to talk about that." A player who mentions he's struggling might get scratched from the lineup, he said.
"Junior hockey has a responsibility that's not talked about in this country very often. … You're 17 years old, you're shipped out to wherever to play hockey, and I believe the leagues and the organizations have a responsibility to have somebody there to support those kids," said Mr. De Clark, who works in counselling and therapy at a Vancouver Island treatment centre.
Myles Mattila, a 16-year-old who plays for the Okanagan Rockets of the B.C. Hockey Major Midget League, said Mr. Rypien's death was one of two events that led him to become a mental-health advocate.
The teen, who spoke at Tuesday's news conference, said the other event that spurred him was not knowing what to do when one of his teammates experienced mental-health issues.
"He wasn't acting like himself and some things really began to worry me. He lost interest in the game he used to love. His temper grew short and his actions turned irrational. He started making dark comments about feeling unhappy and unworthy. He was beginning to be very negative and starting to isolate himself from other people. Nothing could cheer him up," he said.
"At first, I thought he was just having a bad day. But when it continued I noticed it was more than that. My teammate was in mental distress and needed help. I wanted to point him in the right direction, but I didn't know what he could do, who he should talk to or where he could get support. Mental health wasn't a common topic and I didn't know much about it."
He said his friend has since gotten the help he needed.
Bev Gutray, chief executive officer of CMHA's B.C. division, said statistics that compare mental illness among athletes and the general population are not available. However, she said athletes do face unique complexities.
"There's no other workplace where somebody else observes how you're performing your work on a minute-by-minute, second-by-second basis. And then, maybe depending on that, I can't imagine going to work in the morning and finding out that my job just moved to Prince George. I can't imagine if I'm a young person that I have real connections to this billet family and now I'm going to meet somebody brand new," she said.
The association says between 50 per cent and 70 per cent of mental illnesses show before the age of 18. It says about 3.5 per cent of young people in B.C. experience depression and suicide is the second-leading cause of death among those aged 15 to 24 in B.C., after motor vehicle accidents.
The program, called Talk Today, is based on a similar program that was launched with the Ontario Hockey League in 2014.