March 5, 2016 1:32 am
Updated: March 7, 2016 6:36 pm

‘It’s okay to not be okay’: University of Alberta bike-a-thon raises awareness for mental health

WATCH ABOVE: Athletes at the University of Alberta are looking to shine a light on mental illness. For the next 24 hours, they'll ride stationary bikes at the Saville Community Sports Centre to raise funds and generate awareness. As Shallima Maharaj explains, the cause is near and dear to their hearts.

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EDMONTON — ‘Who am I?’ This is the question University of Alberta Golden Bears soccer player Tim Hickson has asked himself for years as he battles with mental illness.

Four years ago, the now 22-year-old’s life took an unexpected turn when he was released from the Vancouver Whitecaps. He said his life changed and “everything got dark.”

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“I had lost NCAA eligibility and when you’ve grown up with pro in mind… and you’re that close, on the doorstep, you’ve kind of given all of your mental side to that. And when you lose that you don’t know what to do.”

Not wanting to be a problem for his family and friends, Hickson kept his struggle a secret and didn’t talk about it.

“It just got worse and worse,” he said.

“For as long as I could remember, the game is what defined me. Without that, who am I?” Hickson questioned. “‘Am I the soccer player? The pro? The student athlete? The brother? The son? Or friend? Who am I?'”

As his depression got worse, Hickson said he lost who he was; substance abuse followed and then self harm.

“I obviously didn’t handle it very well. I got hooked to prescription pain killers which led to an addiction and that kind of furthered the depression to the point where my own life was in jeopardy more times than I’d like to admit.”

READ MORE: Alberta suicide rate up 30%, province looking for answers

Having spent his earlier years playing soccer in Edmonton, Hickson enrolled in school at the U of A and was offered a spot on the Golden Bears soccer team where he is now the captain. It was head coach Len Vickery who, about two years ago, encouraged Hickson to seek help.

“I talked to him about what was going on and I let him know and just from there he said, ‘Tim, we’re going to get you professional help. We need to.'”

Hickson said that was the turning point for him. This past week, he opened up publicly about his struggles in a video that was posted to the University of Alberta Golden Bears’ YouTube page.

In the video, Hickson is riding a stationary bike. With sweat pouring down his face, you can see the determination in his eyes; the entire time his heart is pounding in the background.

“I am Tim Hickson and I am fighting. I am fighting and speaking out to end my silence and to end the stigma around mental health,” Hickson said in the video.

“It’s okay to not be okay.”

Hickson shared his story ahead of the soccer team’s bike-a-thon in support of mental health awareness. The 24-hour event, which Hickson spearheaded, kicked off at the Saville Community Sports Centre Friday night. In rotating shifts, members of the Golden Bears soccer team past and present will ride stationary bikes until 7 p.m. Saturday to raise funds and awareness for the Student Athlete Mental Health Initiative.

“I really wanted to contribute to breaking down the stigma that is being created against mental health and mental wellness,” Connor James, goalkeeper with the Golden Bears, said.

Watch below: Tim Hickson shares his battle with mental illness

One in five Canadians will experience mental illness at some point in their life, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Mara Grunau is the executive director of the Centre for Suicide Prevention in Calgary. She said while the stigma around mental health has eroded in recent years, there’s still an overwhelming number of people who have a hard time coming to terms with how they’re feeling to the point where they’re able to talk to someone about it.

Grunau said when athletes and other local heroes speak out about their mental health, it’s a “watershed moment.”

“For them to be able to take a stand is significant and it’s a real testament to their strength,” Grunau said. “So much is riding on their health in all aspects that there are so many incentives for them to be quiet.

“It is so powerful for so many people who look up to these athletes, these heroes in our community. When they come forward other people are more likely to as well.”

READ MORE: More information sharing needed to help mentally ill, says former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy

Now on the road to recovery, Hickson has good days and bad. He said the journey is all about who you surround yourself with, and putting the emphasis on how you see yourself.

“If you can try and see yourself in a positive light and have people around you that make you feel positive it makes a world of difference.”

The bike-a-thon had a goal of raising $2,000 but by Friday night had already hit $3,000. On Monday, Hickson said the bike-a-thon raised a total of $7,755.

For more information on the event, visit the University of Alberta’s website.

The Canadian Mental Health Association in Edmonton has a 24/7 distress line. If you are in need of counselling or support resources, call 780-482-4357.

© 2016 Shaw Media

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