Sports psychologists: Price will help end the stigma around mental health in sports

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No pain, no gain.

"What a terrible phrase that we've used for many years to describe our athletes," Gordon Bloom says of the saying that's been thrown around the sports world since the 1980s -- and sums up a lot of what's still wrong with sports.

A day after the NHL and National Hockey League Players' Association announced Carey Price was entering the NHLPA assistance program, Bloom applauded the 34-year-old Montreal Canadiens goalie for helping shatter the stigma around mental health in sports.

"That culture definitely exists, and has existed for a hundred years and we haven't really changed it," said the professor of sport psychology at Montreal's McGill University. "Athletes are expected to be human. And they're expected to act tough and show no pain, and we're only now starting to realize we have to take better care of them. This is a workplace environment, and we need to do a better job.

"Hockey is much the same as all the other sports, we're all still in the dinosaur years, we have a long way to go."

While there've been no details around Price's leave, his wife Angela posted on Instagram about the importance of "putting your mental health first."

The Habs goalie is the latest in a list to high-profile athletes, including superstars Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, to step away from their sport for mental health reasons.

Sport is inherently stressful, says longtime sport psychologist Penny Werthner, particularly when played at the highest level.

Athletes are asked to be excellent, often several nights a week, for months on end, with what can feel like the whole world watching.

"There is anxiety and stress that's inherent in standing out there, putting yourself on the line and seeing if you can hit the ball or stop the puck," said Werthner, who has worked with numerous Olympic teams for more than three decades.

"Every moment is another one of those. It's not easy. And the more we see these athletes perform well, when we don't think about it very much, we think it's easy, right?"

Sports messaging has long been "you've got to fight through it, you've got to be mentally tough, you've got to never give in," Werthner said. If the price paid was poor mental health, athletes often suffered in silence.

"There is still a stigma around saying, 'I can't manage this anymore,' which is really where we start to veer from mental health into mental illness is when we get stuck there," Werthner said from her Calgary home. "There still a stigma to not talk about that."

Price stepping away to focus on his mental health is positive, she said, because "the more we talk about it, the more that macho-ness will dissipate, that you don’t have to suffer alone, you can actually get help."

The Player Assistance Program, started by the NHLPA and NHL in 1986, provides confidential counselling with a network of counsellors in each NHL city. Players are connected with professionals in the specific area in which they're seeking help, including mental health, sleep issues, gambling, drinking, etc. There's also a 1-800 number that players can call, that's open 24 hours a day.

The Price news comes on the heels of Habs teammate Jonathan Drouin revealing last month that he has suffered from anxiety and insomnia for years. He recently rejoined the team after a five-month break from hockey.

Former Toronto Raptors star DeMar DeRozan got the NBA talking about mental health a few years ago, after a middle-of-the-night tweet that said "This depression get the best of me."

He posted a photo on Instagram of Heath Ledger's "Joker" character with the words "the worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don't."

DeRozan's candidness about his depression reverberated around the NBA and led Cleveland forward Kevin Love to open up about his episodes of anxiety. The duo has been featured in NBA mental health campaigns.

The Tokyo Olympics will be partly remembered for the spotlight Osaka and Biles shone on mental health. Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam tennis champion, said she'd suffered from depression for years, while the American superstar gymnast Biles withdrew from several events due to the "twisties," a dangerous disorientation in midair, saying she was going to "focus on myself, rather than push stuff under the rug."

The backlash suffered by the two women showed that social media hasn't helped.

"These are probably the two most high-profile female athletes in the world right now, and the backlash they got was just terrible," Bloom said.

Price received an outpouring of support from around the league. Former goalie Corey Hirsch, who has been vocal about depression that almost led to him taking his own life years ago, tweeted that he was "extremely proud" of Price.

"I hope more players feel safer to get help. I thank everyone on here that is showing Carey love and support. That's how we will create change."

There have been a cluster of suicides and sudden deaths of NHL players, including Wade Belak's suicide in 2011, and the deaths of Derek Boogaard, 28, and Rick Rypien, 27.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 8, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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