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Outpouring of support for Carey Price as sports shifts away from mental illness stigma

NHL program has been encouraging players to talk since Rick Rypien's death in 2011

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, seen here before the home opener on Jan. 28, was a driving force behind his team's battle for the Stanley Cup in the middle of a pandemic.

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, seen here before the home opener on Jan. 28, was a driving force behind his team's battle for the Stanley Cup in the middle of a pandemic.

Photo: La Presse canadienne / Paul Chiasson

RCI

As shocking as it was for hockey buffs to hear on Thursday that the seemingly unshakable goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens is seeking help, it's not unheard of for professional athletes to reach out when they need to.

And as soon as their names are splashed across headlines, any whispers of macho criticism are drowned out by a tidal wave of support from teammates, managers, experts and fans.

Carey Price is now among those athletes receiving love and support from around the world as he enters a player assistance program — for unspecified reasons — with his wife's encouragement. The program helps players and their families deal with substance abuse, mental health and other matters. 

No matter what is on the line, we hope we can communicate the importance of putting your mental health first not just by saying it, but by showing up and doing the work to get better, said the 34-year-old goaltender's wife, Angela Price, on her Instagram account.

That's pretty much how it went for U.S. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles as well when she withdrew from the women's team final back in July to look after her mental health. 

She was globally praised for her courage. But it hasn't always been this way.

Angela Price, seen here with her husband before a game against the Chicago Blackhawks on March 16, 2019, stressed the importance of putting 'mental health first.'

Angela Price, seen here with her husband before a game against the Chicago Blackhawks on March 16, 2019, stressed the importance of putting 'mental health first.'

Photo: (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist based in Toronto, says stigma around mental health in the sports world has declined over the years, thanks to education and dialogue (new window), but there is still room for improvement.

There has always been, within the athletic world, the emphasis on appearing physically fit and appearing mentally fit, said Kamkar, soon after Biles withdrew.

So the more we are able to have a very supportive, empathetic conversation that, same as goes with physical health problems, we are able to normalize the conversation.

'We're more accepting now,' says Friedman

Hockey Night in Canada's Elliotte Friedman agrees. He says the reaction from the community could be better, but I think we're more accepting now.

Despite the growing awareness, however, most were caught off guard by the announcement and that's because it's hard to see through the goalie's mask, Friedman explained.

WATCH | GM Marc Bergevin speaks about Price: 

Price has always maintained stoicism and focus, he said, and that makes it easy to think of him as superhuman, when in reality he is, like any other professional athlete, a person too.

I think we all understand physical injuries, but I think sometimes we don't see the mental injuries and the mental challenges, said Friedman.

Last season, Habs forward Jonathan Drouin sought help to deal with anxiety and insomnia.

The team's general manager, Marc Bergevin, speaking during Thursday's news conference, praised both Drouin and Price for seeking help.

I'm glad they did, Bergevin said.

"If there's other players in the NHL who have different issues, whatever that is, I think the NHL and NHLPA are really looking at the well-being of their players.''

NHL works to break the stigma

Former NHL goaltender Corey Hirsch took to Twitter to say he hopes more players feel safer to get help thanks to Price.

I thank everyone on here that is showing Carey love and support, he said. "That's how we will create change.''

Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice said, the kid with the Carey Price jersey, we still want him wearing it the next day. That's the goal. It's not bad. It's not a stigma.

In fact, the NHL has been working to break the stigma around mental health issues for a decade through the Hockey Talks program — inspired by the death of 27-year-old Vancouver Canucks forward Rick Rypien.

He took time off to battle mental health issues before he died by suicide in 2011.

Former Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets forward Rick Rypien was found dead in 2011 at age 27 after a struggle with depression.

Former Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets forward Rick Rypien was found dead in 2011 at age 27 after a struggle with depression.

Photo:  CBC

Today, 18 NHL clubs participate in the Hockey Talks program, sharing resources, stories and breaking the stigma about mental health issues, says the NHL's website.

Price will voluntarily be taking part in the NHL's Players' Association assistance program. The NHL and NHLPA first offered the jointly funded player assistance program in 1996.

It helps players and their families with mental health, substance abuse and other matters.

Stigma is still present, but expert has hope

Regardless, there's still stigma in the sports world when it comes to mental health issues, said Dr. Gordon Bloom, a professor of sport psychology at McGill University in Montreal.

With such a high-profile player like Price coming forward, Bloom hopes others will be inspired to do the same — further eroding the belief that athletes have to be mentally unflappable. 

As awareness grew around the dangers of sports-related concussions, there was a shift toward injury prevention, he said.

Nobody questions an athlete if they sit out with a head injury, said Bloom, and he's hoping there will be a similar shift when it comes to mental health.

Carey Price can be that person to raise awareness like Sidney Crosby did for concussions, said Bloom. 

Maybe 10 years from now, there won't be any more stigma. They won't be afraid to talk out.

If you are in crisis or know someone who is, here is where to get help:

Isaac Olson (new window) · CBC News with files from The Canadian Press and CBC's Alison Northcott and Benjamin Blum

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