I don’t claim to be a hockey fanatic, but it’s hard to live in this town and not have the game be part of your daily life. News that retired NHL player Wade Belak was found dead from what many suspect was a suicide made me sad. Thirty five years old is way too young for anyone to die; particularly an athlete at the physical prime of their life.
“Another one? This isn’t normal!” I thought to myself. Belak was the third player to die in the past few months from unnatural causes. He joined Derek Boogaard, who died this past summer after mixing alcohol and painkillers, and Rick Rupien who hung himself.
Sports writers quickly chimed in with their theories of how competitive sports – particularly a sport that not only allows for fighting, but seems to revel in it -- exact a physical and mental toll on professional athletes, but I suspect so much more is at play. These deaths are not just the consequences of a violent game on these male athletes, but a reflection of a society that does not allow for its men to be weak.
I feel strongly that these deaths are, at the very least, partly attributable to the extreme contradiction that exists between what is expected of these men (making a living in a sport that glorifies violence and alpha-male behaviour) and what they are expected to keep buried inside.
When showing weakness is frowned upon, seeking help is not the no-brainer so many of us would think it would be.
Why is psychotherapy still seen so suspiciously by so many men, who are hesitant to discuss their feelings, show vulnerability and expose their weaknesses? While the stigma associated with therapy may no longer be as strong, it still persists in a society that values self-reliance and emotional strength. Seeking help is, too often, seen as tantamount to admitting defeat and this world just doesn’t like “quitters”.
In “Crossing the No Cry Zone: Psychotherapy With Men”, Fredric E. Rabinovitch, Ph.D. states: “Because the traditional male role requires men to hide more vulnerable emotions, they often have few outlets for emotional expression. In comparison to women, higher rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, violence, and successful suicide suggest that many men act out rather than verbally share their emotional pain.”
The problem with living in a society that’s hell bent on idolizing their sports heroes and putting them on pedestals is that it doesn’t allow them any room to be human. -
“Boys don’t cry”. Is this still so ingrained in our society that a man who may have been experiencing well-documented and long-standing problems would refrain from seeking the help that could have easily been available to him, had he simply asked for it?
I don’t know the inner workings and underlying problems that would have led a young, healthy, financially well-off husband and father to believe that his situation was hopeless and beyond repair, but this was, undeniably, the sad case of a man unwilling or unable to reach out for help; someone who felt he absolutely had no recourse.
The problem with living in a society that’s hell bent on idolizing their sports heroes and putting them on pedestals is that it doesn’t allow them any room to be human. Rupien had well-documented bouts with depression, and yet it was never discussed. Sports writers have no problems speculating about the extent and seriousness of any physical injuries, but mental issues are still taboo, still hush-hush, still seen as a weakness and a liability.
These three men may have all been hockey players, but this issue goes way beyond the effects of a violent game on their psyche. The real issue is that we live in a world that doesn’t encourage our boys (and eventually our men) to show sensitivity and fragility, and it’s high time for us all to redefine masculinity.
Men need to understand that being strong means sometimes having the strength to admit powerlessness and reaching out for help. They owe it to themselves and to the people who love them to sometimes be that “weak”.