There was a time when Rick Rypien was going to tell his story.
It was a couple of years ago, not long after the rugged Vancouver Canucks' forward had disclosed to team officials that he was battling depression and other symptoms of mental illness. The player thought that if he opened up about his problems, it might encourage others to seek help rather than suffer in silence as he had for so many years.
Mr. Rypien also felt that if the public saw one of the toughest players in the National Hockey League talking about a subject often associated weakness and vulnerability, it might, in some small way, help reduce the stigma that has been linked with the disease for almost as long as it's been around.
The player and the team decided the time wasn't quite right for him to talk about his problems. As it turns out, he was still dealing with them. But even those closest to him were not aware of just how desperate the player's situation had become.
On Aug. 15 of last year, Mr. Rypien killed himself.
Word spread quickly throughout the hockey world. In the off season, Mr. Rypien had signed with the Winnipeg Jets, so the news reverberated there. But it really hit home with the Canucks and their fans – Mr. Rypien had been with the organization for seven seasons. And among his former teammates, none mourned his loss more than defenceman Kevin Bieksa, who had become like a brother to the fallen player.
This week, Mr. Bieksa stepped forward in the name of his old friend to record a public service announcement that the Canucks used to re-launch a mental health and addiction website. In it, the star defenceman urges those who might be suffering from the disease to not stay silent, but instead "pledge" to talk to friends about the problems they're experiencing.
The way Mr. Rypien had with him once upon a time.
The Canucks donated $50,000 to help finance the website – mindcheck.ca – and insist this is not a one-off involvement. It will continue in the years to come in various forms. The website is interactive, and when you click on the icon RYP 37, it tells Mr. Rypien's story. The site has lots of resource material for those seeking help.
The Canucks are honouring Mr. Rypien's memory through their involvement in a campaign designed to increase awareness dramatically of mental illness. And that says a lot about an organization that could just as easily have held a moment of silence at the beginning of the season and moved on.
Connie Coniglio, executive director of B.C. Mental Health and Addiction Services, says the Canucks' participation in the discussion of mental health issues is important.
"Sports heroes, and in Vancouver especially the Canucks, have a strong social influence with youth and young adults who might not otherwise accept or pay attention to the messages we're trying to get out," Dr. Coniglio says.
"Let's face it, there is a tremendous amount of stigma associated with mental health issues, and that stigma is very, very deep. On surveys we ask young people why they didn't seek help, what was holding them back, and the majority said: 'I hoped it would go away on its own.'"
It's the younger members of Canucks fandom with whom health experts particularly hope to connect. One in five Canadians between the ages of 13 and 21 will experience a mental health disorder serious enough to cause significant distress and affect their ability to function at home, school, work or with their peers. The earlier someone in need gets help, the bigger the difference it can make.
Dr. Coniglio said an earlier iteration of the website got about 1,000 hits a week. In the two days since the re-launch of it with the Canucks, it's received more than 150,000.
Canucks GM Mike Gillis said he learned a lot about mental illness talking to Mr. Rypien. He saw, up close, how devastating it can be. He understands now the many forms the disease can take, how there isn't a panacea, a cure-all to combat the many faces of the disease.
He appreciates how much courage it took for Mr. Rypien to come and talk to him about his illness. To pull back the curtains on his life and the terrible secret he'd been hiding from so many.
"He was an amazing young man who was very troubled, obviously," Mr. Gillis said. "We want to try and help anyone facing the kinds of challenges Rick had. We want to educate people, put our logo behind this and use it in the right way."
Rick Rypien wanted to help others by sharing his story. The Canucks are making sure that still happens.