Kamloops Blazers’ legend and mental-health advocate Corey Hirsch gets back to the Tournament Capital about once a year and, during his latest visit, he had a message for a packed room of listeners.
The Memorial Cup-winning goalkeeper made the Tournament Capital one of his latest stops of speaking engagements with the Independent Contractors and Business Association, sharing with the Canadian Home Builders’ Association-Central Interior on Sept. 14 his story of struggling with mental health and the need for early education to end its stigma.
“That’s really how we’re going to make change,” Hirsch told the crowd at Colombo Lodge. “My generation, most of your generation, we’re not educated. Mental health was something that wasn’t talked about, which is something that led to my issues. We need to educate our kids. You know how easy it would have been to tell me about obsessive-compulsive disorder in high school?”
In 1992, a teenaged Corey Hirsch backstopped the Kamloops Blazers to the team’s first-ever Memorial Cup championship. He went on to earn a Stanley Cup in 1994 with the New York Rangers, who drafted him, and took home an Olympic silver medal that same year.
But while Hirsch’s hockey career was flourishing, below the surface he struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder that went undiagnosed for years.
As an athlete, a physical injury was easy to spot and diagnose, but with mental health, the problem was hidden, Hirsch explained.
Following the Olympics, he said something in his brain “just broke” and he started getting disturbing, repetitive thoughts that remained with him for the next three years 24/7 and would bring on anxiety, panic attacks, weight loss and depression.
“I didn’t know what happened,” Hirsch said, noting he would continue to struggle, not knowing he had OCD for another three years.
Hirsch said his mental-health issues were so bad that at one point in the mid-1990s, he nearly drove his car off a cliff in the Sahali area, intent on killing himself, feeling he could no longer live that way after failing to find help for his condition and believing there was none to be found.
Another bad thought from his OCD, however, caused Hirsch to slam on his breaks before he could go over the edge.
“I was 10 seconds away from being a statistic,” Hirsch said. “Not only was the OCD controlling my life, it was controlling the fact I couldn’t even kill myself. I was a prisoner in my own brain — there was no way out.”
Intent on trying to live with his ailment, Hirsch said he decided not to tell anyone he was struggling, fearing he would be stigmatized and that the revelation would ruin his NHL career.
“Mental illness is like anything else,” he said. “It’s like a broken leg. You cannot just walk it off.”
Finally, during a road game in New Jersey while with the Vancouver Canucks, Hirsch came forward with his issues and returned to Vancouver, where a therapist diagnosed his OCD, telling him it was treatable.
Hirsch was relieved to finally know what was wrong with him after years of suffering, noting all he needed to do was to talk about it.
“I started bawling. Tears of sadness, tears of joy, tears of disbelief,” Hirsch said.
In addition to early education to end mental-illness stigma, Hirsch said stigma surrounding medication needs to end, noting he wouldn’t be alive today without it.
Hirsch said people with mental illness can develop substance-abuse issues.
“It is not a position of weakness if you go get help … and we need to start talking to people. Substance abuse, it’s OK,” he said.
Hirsch also warned of the impact social media can have on youth, noting the internet can be used as a tool or a weapon.
“I’ve been booed by 20,000 people — I’m sure some of you booed me at Memorial Arena sometimes — but I can handle this kind of stuff,” he said. “Our kids can’t handle this kind of stuff.”
ICBA president Chris Gardner said Hirsch has done about 25 speaking engagements in B.C. for the organization in the past year, with more to come.
“Construction workers are over 90 per cent male and it’s a very stoic, get the job done, you work through pain [field],” Gardner said, noting it is a similar culture with NHL hockey players. He said Hirsch’s story resonates with those in the construction industry.
Gardner said the suicide rate amongst construction workers is five times the Canadian national average, adding the only way to change that is to start having conversations.
“We need to put a dent in the suicide rates that they have,” Hirsch said.
Hirsch, whose father was a plumber, said it’s important to reach out to that demographic and let them know it’s OK to seek help for mental-health issues.
Gardner said the goal of the speaking engagements is to get people in the industry feeling more comfortable talking about their mental health.
The ICBA has more than 4,000 members across B.C. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gardner said the organization began noticing the top three drugs requested amongst members on all their health plans were for treating depression, anxiety and sleep disorder. As a result, the ICBA took the initiative to begin a free program addressing mental health in the construction industry, leading to the partnership with Hirsch.
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