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OPP, NHL alumni putting mental illness stigma in penalty box

'It's OK to ask for help,' retired NHLer Glenn Healy says during event at OPP headquarters

A Stanley Cup-winning goalie stood in front of a room full of policing professionals Tuesday and delivered a reassuring message.

“We’re on the same team here,” said Glenn Healy, who won the cup with the New York Rangers in 1993-94 and is now executive director and president of the NHL Alumni Association (NHLAA).

Yesterday's event at OPP General Headquarters in Orillia was the second session of Putting Stigma in the Penalty Box, a mental health awareness campaign for which the OPP and NHLAA have partnered.

While the work of a professional hockey player is different from that of a police officer, the two share some similarities. For example, it’s never been easy for either to seek help when it comes to mental health.

“It’s OK to ask for help. As players, we never did,” Healy said of his time in the NHL, when an athlete sharing his mental health problems with a coach or general manager was essentially unheard of.

Jim McKenny knows the feeling. The former NHLer and television broadcaster, who now counsels those with drug and alcohol addiction, faced his own demons during his time on the ice.

“I am mentally ill. I have the disease,” he said.

While he has been sober for more than 30 years, he still suffers from panic and anxiety disorders. Admitting it is the important part.

“I just hope one day everyone will come out and say, ‘I’m a little bit nuts,’” said McKenny, who believes he wouldn’t be able to help people as well as he does if he hadn’t acknlowledged he was a bit “crazy” himself.

Dave Truax didn’t immediately seek out help when tragedy struck his family in 2012, but he eventually did.

The now-retired OPP detective-superintendent had joined a United Nations mission to Afghanistan. While there, in the fall of 2012, he received a call from his contingent commander, who said they needed to meet up.

“I immediately thought that my mother had passed away,” Truax recalled.

He was not prepared for the news he received. His son, Devin, had been found dead that morning. The 21-year-old had taken his own life.

During his time with the OPP, Truax had delivered bad news like that to families, describing it as “the same as taking a baseball bat and swinging it across their gut.”

This time, he was on the receiving end, and he wasn’t ready for the blow. He shut down. All he wanted to do was stay at home.

When he returned home three days after he got the call about his son, he saw his wife and “didn’t know what to say” to her.

“I realized I’d lost complete control of everything I’d had control of,” he said.

Like many people who lose loved ones to suicide, he was left wondering why. Devin, who would have turned 28 Tuesday, was a bright young man who excelled in school and was six weeks away from his final semester in university. The family physician, who had seen Devin for 15 years, put things into perspective when he told Truax, “Really smart, highly functioning, intellectual people take their lives.”

Truax eventually met an OPP psychologist, who assured him everything he was feeling was normal, given the circumstances. She described him as “stoic.”

Chris Lewis, who was OPP commissioner at the time, called Truax at home and asked when he planned to come back to work. He asked that question because fellow officers had taken it upon themselves to submit a request, on Truax’s behalf, for an extended leave with pay. Truax told Lewis he already had a plan, that he would be back to work at headquarters 60 days after Devin’s death.

When he returned to work, he “still loved the OPP,” but described it as being “just a job” at that point.

Truax eventually left the force and he now works for Citi as its vice-president of security and investigative services.

He wrapped up his speech Tuesday by offering recommendations to police. He suggested more training when it comes to notifying people about the deaths of loved ones, so as to avoid the “baseball bat to the gut” he experienced. Soften the language, he also told them, noting the term “committed suicide” makes it sound like a criminal act.

He urged officers to keep up with physical fitness, ask colleagues how they’re doing, and watch for co-workers who might be turning to alcohol as a way to cope.

The mental health campaign is important to both the OPP and the NHLAA, said OPP Deputy Commissioner Rick Barnum.

“Unfortunately, sometimes we have very dark days in our organization where our people make decisions that are very final,” he said. “This partnership is a prime example of moving forward together in a way we never have before.”

The campaign was begun by OPP Det.-Supt. Ken Leppert. He is retiring this week. In recognition of his efforts to bring the OPP and NHLAA together, Healy presented him with silver cufflinks that are inscribed with “The Alumni” — the same gift given to all NHL alumni.

Nathan Taylor

About the Author: Nathan Taylor

Nathan Taylor is an experienced multimedia journalist and editor who covers Orillia and other parts of Simcoe County.
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