The hockey world has been rocked by the deaths of three players in the last four months. In May, 28-year-old New York Ranger, Derek Boogaard, was found dead of an overdose of alcohol and painkiller, oxycodone. August saw the deaths of former Winnipeg Jet, Rick Rypien, 27, and 35-year-old forward/defence man and former Maple Leaf, Wade Belak. Both apparently hung themselves. All young men made their livings as NHL “enforcers”, also known as “tough guys” or “goons”, and at least two of them suffered from depression.
The deaths of these three young men have sparked today’s difficult and complex post. There is so much to discuss that I have chosen to break it up into two parts. Today, I will attempt to discuss depression, suicide, and the masculine code of silence. Next week, I will examine the treatment of boys in our society, socialized sex roles and gender behaviour, and possible ways to support men – a stride to improve society at large.
Boogaard, Rypien, and Belak played unofficial NHL positions whose job it was to “deter and respond to dirty or violent play by the opposition. When such play occurs, the enforcer is expected to respond aggressively, by fighting or checking the offender. Enforcers are expected to react particularly harshly to violence against star players or goalies.” (Wikipedia)
The life of an NHL enforcer “involves hard hits and playing a role that may seem unnatural,” says Ross Bernstein, a sports journalist whose book The Code details the culture of fighting in the NHL.
“[The enforcer is] the toughest job in sports because 99 per cent of the battles are for other people, they’re constantly injured … and they know there are 10 guys willing to do their job,” he told the Montreal Gazette.
The Globe & Mail reports that these three untimely deaths have led to calls to “ban fighting in hockey, to monitor concussions more closely, to address the abuse of prescription painkillers by athletes and to provide more post-career support to former hockey players,” but something is missing from this list, something very important.
Rypien suffered from depression and took two leaves of absences in three seasons. Wade Belak’s mother has reported that her son suffered from depression as well. Both of these young men suffered in silence, a silence that for some reason is expected of men; an imposed silence that is very much to our society’s detriment.
The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) sees depression as the most common mood disorder, affecting 10% of us. Depression can bring on feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, constant tiredness, an inability to have fun, and thoughts of death or suicide.
“Experts in the field suggest that a suicidal person is feeling so much pain that they can see no other option. They feel that they are a burden to others, and in desperation see death as a way to escape their overwhelming pain and anguish. The suicidal state of mind has been described as constricted, filled with a sense of self-hatred, rejection, and hopelessness.”
Depression can be bleak, miserable, and dark. As someone who experiences depression from time to time, I can tell you that it is NOT a nice place to be and it is a very deep hole to dig oneself out of. As a woman, I will experience and express depression differently than the way a man will because if I decide to talk about it, it is more socially acceptable for me to express my feelings and ask for help, and I probably won’t be labelled as “weak” for it. In our present society, men are not granted the same empathetic response that a woman in crisis may receive, and sadly, he may be ridiculed or otherwise mistreated for what he cannot control.
National Post columnist, Aaron Sands, wrote an excellent piece this week discussing his own depression and the stigma attached to Wade Belak’s mental illness, which Sands believes is Belak’s true cause of death. If we want to take a step forward in masculine social support, it is imperative that we take men’s mental health seriously and give men a voice to express themselves. This should not be thought of as a sign of weakness, on the contrary, it should be thought of as being human.
“Men have a hard time with depression because it is seen as weakness,” says Owen Williams, relationship coach at Toronto’s The Work of Men. ”In the world we live in, despite all the technological advances that we have made, the one area that we fall short on is redefining masculinity. To be a man still means to be strong, having it all together and fighting the “good fight” which in short, means to suck it up. We are still in the dark ages here.”
Sociologists Michael S. Kimmel and Jeff Hearn, in Handbook of Studies on Men and Masculinities, describe men’s learned or socially-imposed stoicism as violence toward the self: “stuffing” their emotions and trying to reach a traditional masculine ideal that rejects feminine emotionality. Young men are discouraged to express emotion (with the exception of anger, which I believe has become a default emotion for males because they have been taught to recognize few others), and “they often fail to learn the language with which they could describe their feelings, and without language it is hard for anyone to make sense of what he feels.”
During the men’s movement of the 1990s, the Iron John period when men were encouraged to (re)discover masculine archetypes, go to the forest, beat on drums, and unleash their Wild Man, Warren Farrell wrote a book called The Myth of Male Power. In it, he challenges men to be responsible for themselves and their actions, including the responsibility of helping themselves to express their emotions and depression.
At least at the time the book was written, Farrell unfortunately did not see a lot of men taking this initiative.
“Men are still most likely to buy adventure books, financial journals, and sports magazines that teach men to solve problems, overcome barriers, or repress feelings. There are few men’s shelters, “masculinist” psychologists, men’s crisis lines, or men’s centres.”
I think the world is a little better for men since Farrell wrote his book, and men’s services, from spas to image consulting to psychotherapy are taking hold and offering men freedom and safety to explore and appreciate themselves. The world is slowly recognizing the need to take men seriously, but the shame of reaching out for help still burns within so many.
Depression can lead to suicide
Globe & Mail columnist, Andre Picard, recently explained the stigma attached to mental illness for men. Picard recognizes the social expectation of boys to silently internalize their pain, act tough, and not show their natural feelings.
“This silence can be fatal,” he says, “Yet the continuing carnage that results – more men die by suicide than in motor vehicle collisions – is largely hidden away and invisible.”
The Canadian Association of Suicide Prevention (CASP) says that suicide is one of the top ten leading causes of death. In 2005 in Canada, suicide accounted for 3,743 deaths in 2005 with a male to female suicide ratio of 3:1. The World Health Organization’s international suicide rates reflects this trend and reports that in some countries, male suicide rates are over 6 times higher than women’s. It has been noted that elderly and very young men (15 – 25) constitute these high rates of suicide.
Kimmel and Hearn say that “[o]ne explanation for boy’s higher rates of lethality from suicide attempts is that males adopt more traditionally “masculine” methods (i.e. guns or knives) and psychological postures (e.g. aggression, goal-directedness, passion to succeed, and denial of feelings) when attempting to kill themselves.”
Masculine silence is one of our key problems in trying to keep men and boys healthy. This rather bizarre and unnatural practice of teaching boys not to recognize and express their feelings, insisting on their constant strength, and not allowing them a voice is not doing anyone any favours, especially the boys themselves. By supporting the idea of keeping men stoic and silent, we’re expecting men to fend for themselves in a world they were not properly trained to operate in, a world that denies them the outlets and the support they deserve. If a more supportive system for males existed in our society, our three late enforcers might still be with us.
“We really need to offer men a comfortable and empathetic environment to express themselves,” Warren Farrell says, “Anything less is a crime against masculinity.”