OHL and CMHA launch 'Talk Today' mental health program in wake of player suicide

Terry Trafford of the Saginaw Spirit stops in front of the Plymouth Whalers goalie during the second period of their hockey game at The Dow Event Center in Saginaw, Mich., March 5, 2013. Almost seven months after the death of Trafford, the Ontario Hockey League and Canadian Mental Health Association are launching a new campaign to educate junior hockey players about mental-health issues." THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/The Saginaw News, Jeff Schrier ALL LOCAL TV OUT; LOCAL TV INTERNET OUT MBO (REV-SHARE)

TORONTO - Seven months after the suicide of Saginaw Spirit forward Terry Trafford, the Ontario Hockey League is teaming up with the Canadian Mental Health Association to help players understand, recognize and treat mental health issues.

"We view the importance of this subject matter, given the terrible tragedy that we all faced, that we had to maybe step up our efforts in this area and provide a more focused area of support," OHL commissioner David Branch said Monday as he launched the "Talk Today" program. "No question, the tragedy of Terry's death only served to say we must move forward and provide greater support in educating our players and everyone else involved about the signs of suicide and how we can help make a difference."

As part of the program, each of the OHL's 20 teams will be assigned a mental health coach who will be available for players, coaches, parents, billets and other members of the organization to talk to. Other aspects include training on recognizing signs of suicide and depression and appointing "mental health champions" who can talk to the public about the league's efforts.

Trafford, 20, was sent home from the Spirit in March for violating team rules. His body was discovered in his SUV in a parking lot in Saginaw Township, Mich., and an autopsy determined he died of self-inflicted asphyxiation.

Branch said he would turn back the clock if he could to change the outcome of the tragedy. Unable to do that, it's the OHL's hope that "Talk Today" can at least raise more awareness.

"Mental illness directly or indirectly affects all of us," said Branch. "For the OHL this was certainly highlighted to us earlier this year with the death by suicide of Terry Trafford. He left a mark on all of us. We hope that by providing all players and team support staff with education on mental health, we will be able to help identify those who are struggling and furthermore help reduce the stigmas attached to mental health issues."

Canadian Mental Health Association CEO Camille Quenneville said suicide is the second-leading cause of death in young Canadians behind accidents and is responsible for a quarter of deaths among 18-to-24-year-olds nationwide. She added that 3.2 million teenagers from the ages of 12 to 19 are at risk of developing depression.

"We have to change this reality," said Quenneville, who is a cousin of Joel, the head coach of the Chicago Blackhawks. "In partnering with the OHL, we're working to provide tools that will create a mentally healthy league."

The road to Tuesday's announcement began shortly after Trafford's death when the Peterborough Petes took part in a pilot program by having players attend a three-hour seminar to learn about and discuss mental health. Petes vice-president Dave Pogue, whose son Mitchell killed himself in August 2013, wasn't sure how his players would react.

"I was concerned when we went in to the course that Sunday morning," Pogue sad. "The clocks were turned back, the boys lost an hour of sleep, two of the players turned 19 the night before and we had a big win and it was their first day off in three weeks. We were inviting them in on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in March to sit down for three hours and talk about mental health and suicide. ...

"I was quite amazed at how engaging they were in the course. Every one of them to a man took it very, very seriously."

Pogue said the team only Monday learned that a player who took the course recently noticed troubling signs in a classmate at school, told a teacher and "may have saved a life." The player reached out despite not knowing the other student, who Pogue said is now getting help.

In addition to the Petes project, a focus group of over-age players in June came away with a recommendation that the OHL expand its support for mental health issues. Quenneville said mental health coaches have already been in touch with teams.

Fully aware of the concern of trying to get through to teenagers, Branch is hopeful that players will be receptive to the program.

"I think young people, maybe more than some generations, understand the importance of not being afraid to talk about such things as mental health," Branch said. "It's not foolproof in terms of them responding the way you would ideally like them to maybe in a time of need, but I think it's a huge step and will prove to be a great safety net for many."

One hurdle, Branch said, is to "make players understand that it's not a sign of weakness to come forward."

"We have to encourage that," he said. "We've got to get rid of some of that macho, win-at-all-costs attitude."


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