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Screen Shots: Depression an issue hockey can’t afford to ignore

TV host Michael Landsberg and former NHLer Stephane Richer have both battled depression. (Photo courtesy of Off The Record)

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TV host Michael Landsberg and former NHLer Stephane Richer have both battled depression. (Photo courtesy of Off The Record)

Imagine the reaction throughout Quebec and the hockey community if, crippled by a depression he hid from virtually everyone outside his immediate family, Martin Brodeur laid down in front of a New Jersey train tomorrow morning and took his own life.

That’s the equivalent of what happened in Germany Tuesday, when star soccer goalkeeper Robert Enke committed suicide at age 32.

At a press conference the following day, Enke’s wife revealed he was despondent over the possibility of losing their adopted child and his privacy if the general public learned he had been treated for acute depression since 2003. He had also lost a two-year-old daughter to cancer in 2006.

Why should this matter to hockey fans? Because clinical depression and mental health issues already had scarred the hockey world numerous times before Enke’s tragic death – from Maple Leafs legend Ron Ellis, to Maple Leaf Gardens sexual abuse victim Martin Kruze, to Sheldon Kennedy, to Claude Lapointe, to Canadiens/Devils great Stephane Richer – and because hockey players of all ages and from all leagues have a right to know options are out there for them to address their suffering.

Why should this matter? Because a scrappy spirit of a man named Theo Fleury wrote about it bluntly in his new book, detailing a suicidal episode in 2003 where he put a loaded gun in his mouth, as well as a massive drug habit that led to a crystal methamphetamine overdose in 1999.

“I was thinking, ‘I have finally accomplished what I have wanted to accomplish for a long time,” Fleury wrote of the overdose. “ ‘I am going to die.’ ”

If a tough-as-titanium little mother like Fleury can very quietly self-immolate from the inside, to the point where he no longer recognizes the joys his sport and his loved ones have given him, none of us are safe from it.

And most importantly, none of us ought to be ashamed to be afflicted with it. Because that shame is very likely at the center of the specter that haunted, hunted and ultimately devoured Enke.

It isn’t as if we’re in the true mental health dark ages of the 1960s and ’70s, when nobody had a clue what steps to take to help those overwhelmed emotionally or chemically.

The NHL is a perfect example of that progress.

“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’s 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.”

Depression in sport first returned to the headlines last month, after Richer – sitting beside me on the panel of TSN’s Off The Record program – held almost nothing back when discussing his flirtations with suicide and how difficult it was just finding help.

It was a moving moment for everyone on that set, especially considering what some of us knew about host Michael Landsberg’s experiences with depression. And the emails Landsberg received from that show (as well as a follow-up edition OTR did with Richer) proved there are many people who to this day suppress and deny what ails them.

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“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.”

I often get questions from people wondering what Landsberg is “really like” – i.e. if he is as cocky as some make him out to be. However, the truth is he’s one of the most down-to-earth, level-headed, decent family men I’ve met in this business.

But if you’re shocked that men like Landsberg and Enke could be depressed despite their professional successes, you’re misunderstanding 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.”

Landsberg, who is hard at work on a book that will delve into his recurrent bouts with the disease, was upset at the seeming preventability of Enke’s death.

“It’s 2009, and here’s a guy who was more able to kill himself in the most violent, awful way possible, than he was to say ‘Hey, everyone, I’m depressed,’ ” Landsberg said. “By most people’s definition he had every reason not to be depressed, but most people’s definition of depression is wrong.

“And the comments from his wife, who said he was worried about losing his friends and his child, that just tells you that there’s thousands of people in Canada 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.”

Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.

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