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Culture of winning creates stigma of mental illness in pro sport

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Wade Belak, right, celebrates their 4-2 victory over the New York Islanders with goalie Andrew Raycroft at the end of their NHL hockey game in Toronto November 20, 2006.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/REUTERS/J.P. MOCZULSKI/REUTERS

The stigma that still surrounds mental illness may prevent professional athletes from seeking the help they need.

"This is, I think, a huge issue. There is a culture around professional sports, a culture of strength, a culture of winning. You can't be a professional athlete without those pieces in your psyche," said Stanley Kutcher, an expert on mental health at Dalhousie University in Halifax. "So if someone has a mental illness, it must be very, very difficult to deal with that. Because the expectations are that you are always strong.''

Former National Hockey League player Wade Belak, 35, was found dead in his hotel room on Wednesday. He took his own life. Dr. Kutcher said he doesn't know anything about the circumstances, but he suspects it may be hard for professional athletes to seek help if they feel depressed or suicidal.

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Mr. Belak retired from playing earlier this year.

Retirement can be especially difficult for professional athletes, said Antonia Baum, a doctor at George Washington University Medical Center who, in 2005, published a research paper on athletes and suicide.

The transition can be more "abrupt and dramatic than for one who does not rely on his body for his livelihood or identify," she wrote in the journal Clinics in Sports Medicine.

Since 1980, at least seven former National Football League players have committed suicide after retirement, she reported.

"Mike Wise, a pro lineman for the Los Angeles Raiders and the Cleveland Browns, killed himself just three weeks following his waiver by Cleveland. A few days earlier, he had told his fiancée '… that he equated having his name on the waiver wire with having it in an obituary.' "

She also cited a study that found that many retired NHL players – 67 per cent – have injuries and 20 per cent have marital or emotional problems.

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About the Author

Anne McIlroy has been a journalist for more than 25 years. She joined the Globe in 1996, and has been the science reporter as well as the parliamentary bureau chief. She studied journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa. More

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