Remembering Rick ‘Ryp’ Rypien on World Mental Health Day
By Brandon Yip, Contributor
October 10 marks the 25th anniversary of World Mental Health Day, established by the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH). World Mental health Day’s ultimate goal is to increase awareness and support for mental illness and those living with them world-wide. According to the WMHD 2017 report, one in four adults will experience mental health difficulties. In the workplace, 10 per cent of employed people have taken time off for depression, an average of 36 workdays is lost per depression episode and 50 per cent of people with depression are untreated. Particularly, mental illness has garnered more attention in our society than it has 20 years ago. Celebrities and other high-profile figures such as the Rock, Prince Harry, Jim Carrey, Mel Gibson, Nelly Furtado, Lady Gaga, Demi Lovato and Sia have all disclosed their own battles with mental health issues. In this country, high-profile mental health initiatives such as the annual “Bell Let’s Talk” Day have brought the issue of mental illness to the forefront. With more and more people coming out and sharing their stories of mental illness, it gives hope to those suffering in silence—and assurance that they are not alone.
Nancy Keough, executive director for the Kettle Society (which provides services since 1976 to over 3,600 individuals with 26 services, a mental health drop-in and over 200 units of supported housing), says the importance of World Mental Health Day should not be overlooked.
“I think it is very important to have global recognition for a serious health issue,” Keough said in an e-mail interview with the Other Press. “Any recognition, education and even acknowledgement is a step in the right direction.”
Keough states that stigma regarding mental illness is still present in our society, but steps have been made in trying to make people more aware and become less judgmental to people with a mental illness.
“Society is taking baby steps in the right direction,” Keough said. “Our members have identified time and time again that the stigma around having a diagnosis of a mental illness is often worse than dealing with the illness itself. The homeless crisis in Vancouver has helped to bring some of the issues to the forefront. We have a long way to go but I think education is the key.”
Sarah Hamid-Balma, mental health promotion director for the Canadian Mental Health Association BC Division, also believes that World Mental Health Day is an important day to recognize those suffering with mental illness.
“Whether you note or notice awareness days and weeks like World Mental Health Day (October 10) or Mental Illness Awareness Week (October 1-7) or Mental Health Week in May, the point of all of them is to get the media’s and public’s attention and get people talking about both good mental health and mental illnesses,” Hamid-Balma said to the Other Press. “These are topics we simply don’t talk openly enough about. Any time is a good time to talk about mental health.”
Regarding stigma associated with mental illness, Hamid-Balma believes that progress has been made, but more work needs to be done.
“It’s definitely better than a couple of decades ago. There didn’t use to be fundraisers for mental health, for one. Actors may have disclosed a personal story, but now you’ll hear from many more and more musicians and athletes and politicians and business executives talking about their experience or even leading a campaign to promote awareness.”
Moreover, Hamid-Balma believes it is very important for people experiencing mental health issues to gather together and talk openly about what their experiences. “Well, we know that meeting people with an experience of mental illness is the best way to eradicate stigma,” Hamid-Balma said. “We also know that we are more likely to seek help if we know a friend or family member got help. So, if you have got help for a mental health problem, and it helped, consider telling one more person. If lots of us did that, the impact would be amazing.”
When it comes to professional sports and high-profile athletes, it would seem on the surface that no athlete would be afflicted with mental illness due to the perception that they are “too tough.” A broken leg or an ACL injury is just part of the job, but illnesses such as depression or anxiety, which is not visible on the outside, do not seem to be given the same amount of attention as a typical “jock” injury would. Notably, the Vancouver Canucks have played a prominent role in mental health awareness initiatives.
The issue of mental health came to the forefront with Rick Rypien’s story.
Rypien started his career playing four seasons with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League. In 2005, he was signed by the Manitoba Moose, who were the American Hockey League affiliate for the Vancouver Canucks at the time. The following season, Rypien would sign with the Canucks. On the ice, Rypien was a fierce competitor. He would drop the gloves and go toe-to-toe with opponents who were beyond his height and weight class. Rypien was a favourite of then-head coach, Alain Vigneault. But off the ice, Rypien was fighting a battle far greater than any fighter he faced on the ice: depression. Rypien, who played for the Canucks from 2005-2010, was granted two extended leaves of absence. Before Rypien’s tragic suicide on August 15, 2011, he wanted to help others who were battling through mental health issues as he was. The website mindcheck.ca was created as a resource for people to go to for mental health information, where to go to seek help and other resources. Rypien’s teammate and good friend, Kevin Bieksa, would take on the role as team spokesperson to speak about Rypien’s legacy and the mindcheck website. Bieksa would speak publicly at schools and hospitals to talk about mental health and his good friend “Ryp.” Speaking to an audience back in February 2013 at the Chan Centre Auditorium, BC Children’s Hospital, for the 2013 Youth Summit, Bieksa said that it is important to be supportive and understanding if someone you know has a mental health issue.
“Unless you’re suffering from depression, you don’t know how they’re feeling,” Bieksa said. “And that’s one thing that friends of mine have told me [who] are suffering through the disease is you can’t try to understand how they’re feeling.”
Bieksa also stated that it is important to take action if you know that someone close to you is suffering with a mental health issue.
“As soon as your friend opens up to you, you inherit that responsibility and you inherit that critical role that could end up saving his or her life,” Bieksa said during the speech. “Give them the benefit of the doubt, listen to what they are saying and when the time comes, you’re gonna have to help them get some help.”
Later on, Alex Burrows, would become a mental health ambassador for the team. Bieksa would later be traded to the Anahiem Ducks in June 2015 and Burrows dealt to the Ottawa Senators in a trade back in February 2017. This coming season, the Canucks have announced that defenceman, Ben Hutton, will now be the new mental health ambassador for the team.
Tara Clarke, manager for Community Partnerships with the Vancouver Canucks, believes that World Mental Health Day is an important day for bringing awareness to mental health issues. “It is important that we eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness,” Clarke said in an interview with the Other Press. “We need to make conversations about mental health a regular, commonplace occurrence and this starts with awareness initiatives such as World Mental Health Day. We would like mental health issues to be discussed with the same ease and understanding as we do any other injury or illness. It is not something that should be hidden away. No one should feel embarrassed or ashamed to talk about struggles they might be having. They need to know that there are resources out there and help is available.”
From 2014-2016, the Canucks hosted a free mental health youth summit called Balancing Our Minds at Rogers Arena. More than 1,500 youth from around BC spent the day learning about numerous mental health topics and working on ways to reduce the stigma within their communities and beyond. In 2017, Balancing Our Minds went on the road with conferences held in Penticton, Prince George, Surrey, Parksville and Victoria, allowing the messages to reach even more youth in BC.
Clarke also stated the importance of carrying on Rick Rypien’s legacy.
“Rick Rypien was a hockey hero, a son, a brother, a teammate, and a friend,” Clarke said. “Rick’s wish was to support others and help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness by being a spokesperson for this issue. After his passing, the Vancouver Canucks committed to honoring Rick’s legacy by telling his story and carrying out his mission to support youth and families struggling with mental health. This is a commitment that we hold close to our hearts and we will not falter in continuing our work in this area.”
Ultimately, discussions of mental illness should not be taboo or something to be ashamed of. Big corporate national initiatives such as the annual “Bell Let’s Talk” day have brought mental health awareness to the forefront in this country. It seems that public awareness initiatives and recognizing important days such as World Mental Health Day are the steps in the right direction. However, stigma and ignorance regarding mental illness is still there, but awareness, education, and being able to judge less and listen more are keys in removing stigma. And for Kevin Bieksa, the loss of his good friend, Rick Rypien, leaves behind a void.
“He was a great friend,” Bieksa had said. “It’s still tough to think about not having him around. He wanted to really help out, tell his story [and] reach out and help other people suffering from this illness…I’m carrying on his legacy for him. This is what he wanted.”