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Toronto Star coverage of Dalen Kuchmey story shows misunderstanding of mental illness

Neate Sager
Buzzing The Net

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Dalen Kuchmey walked out on the Windsor Spitfires midgame last week (Terry Wilson, OHL Images)

It was good last week mental illness popped into many people's minds before they condemned the Windsor Spitfires goalie Dalen Kuchmey for quitting the team in the middle of a playoff game.

Ideally, that heightened sensitivity would endure and not just be a passing phase stemming from the Terry Trafford tragedy. With that being said, alarmist reporting such as the kind the Toronto Star did after Kuchmey pulled the chute hurts the cause of increasing understanding of mental illness.

Simply put, the way the Star mashed-up two 'related stories' — "the goalie’s abrupt departure raised alarm bells in the wake of the recent suicide of Saginaw Spirit player Terry Trafford" — was outrageous. (Especially when the 19-year-old Kuchmey had spoken to other media.) The only reason not to be outraged is that life is too short to get in a huff on Twitter over every little thing.

Reporter Curtis Rush went there even though there was no obvious reason to go there.

The goalie’s abrupt departure raised alarm bells in the wake of the recent suicide of Saginaw Spirit player Terry Trafford, but Kuchmey’s father, Chris, said he’s not worried about his son’s mental health.

Chris Kuchmey’s oldest son was downstairs at home in Windsor watching the game when he saw his brother leave the ice.

“I heard him (oldest son) react,” the father told the Star in an interview. “He said Dalen had just walked off the ice. I said, ‘What?’ ”

“I’m shocked,” the teen’s father, Chris, said. “I know there are underlying issues there.” (Toronto Star, March 26)

The "underlying issues" seemed to be differences between the goalie and the team's hockey operations department, nothing more.

But the inference was obvious: mentally ill people act out in massive, inappropriate public displays. That stereotype is the basis for the stigma that envelops mental illness. People fear being labelled, fear being exposed, over a condition that didn't do anything to acquire or, in some cases, aggravate (the World Heath Organization's 'black dog' video portrays depression far better than I can.)

Playing on that for the sake of sensationalism, and reinforcing misconceptions about mental illness, doesn't do anyone any good. The reality is that many a person with depression and social anxiety suffers silently because of a sense of shame that is internal but feels imposed from the outside. (It's tricky that way.) The last thing he or she would likely want is undue attention, like the kind that would come from skating off the ice in front of 4,000 people while playing in a league that is avidly followed on social media. Hitting bottom is often done in private.

Attributing anything and everything to mental health issues doesn't show understanding or sensitivity about mental health. In fact, it trivializes it.

The cruel, ironic reality for why many people with depression or social anxiety don't open up due to the belief there's some noble purpose in not accessing the health-care system, because someone else's problems must be more urgent. Is that why we get awareness and 'reduce the stigma' sloganeering instead of actual resources put toward mental health at the same time one overcrowded hospital in Ontario had mentally ill patients sleeping on the floor?

Obviously, that's a societal issue more than a junior hockey one, but if you can use something people like as a conduit for exploring a Serious Issue, you have to take the opportunity every so often. One ill-informed Toronto Star article is the residue of the problem and not the root cause. The reason for getting into it is that it has to be called out, since it's counterproductive for mental health education. The reason for waiting until today was that Curtis Rush had a rough time last week.

The simplest explanation is Kuchmey just quit because he couldn't handle being lit up by the London Knights. That was his choice. Young adults who haven't learned to lose is another thing entirely apart from mental illness.

Kuchmey's decision was 180 degrees removed from how Ottawa 67's overage goalie Philippe Trudeau and his coach, Chris Byrne, handled a trying situation earlier in the season. Ottawa lost its final game 12-1 to North Bay after entering with a mathematical possibility of making the playoffs, in large part thanks to Trudeau, who played a league-high 63 games on a team that often didn't offer much support. Byrne lifted Trudeau after the sixth North Bay goal. In the third period, with the game far out of reach and the season over, Trudeau went back in for those final 20 minutes. That was a case of a goalie being accountable instead of entitled, and his coach understanding why that was important.

Getting back to the point, the upshot is the OHL didn't see Kuchmey and Trafford as "intertwined" but will surely act to put better mental health protocols in place. Meantime, not all journalism has to be advocacy journalism. But work that fosters misconceptions can do a lot of damage.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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