Hidden Enemy

Rick Rypien’s toughest foe

From Saturday’s Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Aug. 19, 2011 7:30PM EDT
Last updated Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011 6:10PM EDT

Even the toughest guys inevitably encounter a foe tougher than they are. Hockey player Rick Rypien was tough but depression was tougher, and he took his life this month.

His death shows how important it is, in sport and in the wider society, to continue talking about and trying to de-stigmatize mental illness and suicide.

And it shows how silly and destructive are the myths that persist – “if only depressed people would toughen up.”

Mr. Rypien, of Crowsnest Pass, Alta., was as tough as they come. He wasn’t drafted for the National Hockey League, and he made it. At 5′ 11” and 190 pounds, he became an “enforcer” – a fighter – and fought the behemoth Hal Gill, 6’7” and 241 pounds, to a standstill. (“Get a ladder,” the announcer commented.) The 27-year-old had 39 NHL fights. (He had signed to play with the Winnipeg Jets this coming season.)

Four thousand people take their own lives each year in Canada, and many of them, like Mr. Rypien, are outwardly successful, tough and well-liked. After Mr. Rypien’s death, those who knew him commented on how they had no idea how he had been feeling. Perhaps the stereotypes around mental illness prevent us from truly seeing, understanding and reaching one another.

“There’s no reason, if we apply conventional wisdom, that this should happen,” says Bill Wilkerson, who is an authority of mental health in the workplace and who served as adviser to NHL commissioner John Ziegler in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He points to a sense of isolation, even when among friends or family, and a loss of meaning, among those who take their own lives. “Popularity is not the antidote to that sense of emotional isolation, where you’re feeling increasingly isolated from why you’re doing what you’re doing – in this case, playing hockey every night.” To break through that isolation, Mr. Wilkerson proposes peer support for pro hockey players, and counselling programs that begin in minor hockey.

If it can happen to a tough guy like Rick Rypien, it can happen to anyone.

We aren’t talking about an occasional bout with the “blues” here. Real depression – the type that can debilitate and kill, is an illness. There are symptoms but the problem is that these symptoms can vary and can mimic normal reactions to stress.

Take a look:

Signs and symptoms of depression (http://www.helpguide.org/mental/depression_signs_types_diagnosis_treatment.htm)

Depression varies from person to person, but there are some common signs and symptoms. It’s important to remember that these symptoms can be part of life’s normal lows. But the more symptoms you have, the stronger they are, and the longer they’ve lasted—the more likely it is that you’re dealing with depression. When these symptoms are overwhelming and disabling, that’s when it’s time to seek help.

Common signs and symptoms of depression

Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. A bleak outlook—nothing will ever get better and there’s nothing you can do to improve your situation.

Loss of interest in daily activities. No interest in former hobbies, pastimes, social activities, or sex. You’ve lost your ability to feel joy and pleasure.

Appetite or weight changes. Significant weight loss or weight gain—a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month.

Sleep changes. Either insomnia, especially waking in the early hours of the morning, or oversleeping (also known as hypersomnia).

Anger or irritability. Feeling agitated, restless, or even violent. Your tolerance level is low, your temper short, and everything and everyone gets on your nerves.

Loss of energy. Feeling fatigued, sluggish, and physically drained. Your whole body may feel heavy, and even small tasks are exhausting or take longer to complete.

Self-loathing. Strong feelings of worthlessness or guilt. You harshly criticize yourself for perceived faults and mistakes.

Reckless behavior. You engage in escapist behavior such as substance abuse, compulsive gambling, reckless driving, or dangerous sports.

Concentration problems. Trouble focusing, making decisions, or remembering things.

Unexplained aches and pains. An increase in physical complaints such as headaches, back pain, aching muscles, and stomach pain.

Depression can manifest in some or all of the symptoms. It can manifest in symptoms unique to the individual. Depression is a sneak thief. It will rob you of your enjoyment of life; it will rob you of relationships with your family and friends. It will isolate you, not in the physical sense but in the emotional sense, the psychological sense. You may be in a workplace, full of people – at a party – at home, surrounded by others but you feel disconnected, as if you are watching a play, you aren’t a participant, simply an audience. In the worst case scenario – it will rob you of your life.

It is a true sneak thief – it is cunning and quiet. Not all the symptoms may show up at once…they may insinuate themselves, one at a time, quietly infecting you, making it virtually impossible for you to realize what is happening, that you are ill.

You don’t want to consider the possibility of depression; in North American society, it is a weakness. You may be told to “Snap out of it!” or “Put on your big girl/boy panties and smarten up!” So you put on your “grown up” face and fake it but while you are faking it, the symptoms start to worsen, maybe more come along and if you are sick enough, you won’t even notice it until you find yourself ready to take the step to end your life. And you won’t even recognize the finality of that step because at that point, you are too ill. There may be no regrets, no note, no good byes…just a leaving of this mortal coil. Sometimes you may put out an alarm, signs that you need help but not all the time. Some people suffering from this cancer of the psyche will simply disappear. Leaving grieving family and friends asking themselves “What could I have done to prevent this?!” or “Why didn’t I see this coming?” The answers are, you couldn’t have done anything to prevent it and you didn’t see it because it is invisible, it is a shadow, unseen by the naked eye. If the depressed person’s illness has progressed to the final stages, no one will know and no one can stop it. The battle raged inside the mind, undetected because it is, in our society a source of shame. To be depressed, to suffer from mental illness is weakness. The depressed individual is to be scorned, avoided and cast out.

The word about depression does not seem to be sinking into society’s mindset. Society does not seem to grasp the possibility of a disease that may not show up on a CAT scan or in blood tests. Chemical imbalance in the brain can’t be seen. There is no fever. There are no chills. The body does not, visibly, break down. Depression kills. It doesn’t care who you are. It doesn’t care if you are a sports hero, if you are a C.E.O. or one of the great mass of blue/white and pink collar workers. It doesn’t care if you are a mother/father/son or daughter. It doesn’t care if you are on the A List. It will find you, and destroy your life. It will find you and may take your life. The most terrifying aspect of this disease is that you may not even know that you are afflicted until it is too late.

Heed the symptoms above, for yourself and for those you love. If they begin to manifest, get to a doctor. Not a psychologist but a doctor, who can help to regulate the chemistry in your brain. Who can help to rid you of this sneak thief. You don’t need to put on your big girl/boy panties – you need to be treated for an illness. An illness as dangerous to you and your family as is tuberculosis, cancer or any other disease that is recognized as potentially fatal.

It isn’t a source of personal or family shame. It is a disease and it can be treated.

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