Women’s hockey promotes teenage mental health

Women's hockey for mental health
Morgan Richardson hopes that young girls watching the world women's hockey championship see more than just the action on the ice. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

OTTAWA – Morgan Richardson hopes that young girls watching the world women’s hockey championship see more than just the action on the ice.

Multiple times during games, the Scotiabank Place scoreboard flashes purple and conveys a message important to her, that youth mental health is worth talking about.

Richardson, 18, is a hockey player from a hockey family. The defenceman won a gold medal with Canada at the 2012 world under-18 women’s hockey championship.

Her father Luke played 21 seasons in the NHL, is a former assistant coach of the Ottawa Senators and currently coaches American Hockey League’s Binghamton Senators.

Richardson’s younger sister Daron was also a hockey player. Daron committed suicide in 2010 at the age of 14.

What started as a “Do It For Daron” sticker on the hockey helmet of one of Daron’s friends became a youth-driven movement encouraging teenagers to talk about mental illness without shame or fear.

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Do It For Daron, or D.I.F.D., at the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health is the official charity of the 2013 women’s world hockey championship in Ottawa.

During Wednesday’s game between Canada and Switzerland the World Women’s Hockey Twitter account tweeted about the cause:

While Morgan Richardson cheers for her Cornell University teammates on the Canadian team, she believes D.I.F.D. is opening new lines of communication about mental illness and depression among people her age.

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“It absolutely is groundbreaking,” Richardson said from Ithaca, N.Y. “I think it’s starting to change. There’s still a lot of stigma and shame around mental illness. I think that’s the whole point of D.I.F.D., to erase that stigma around it. I think we still have a long way to go.”

“I think everybody deals with things. It’s one of those things that if you hurt your wrist, you’d ask for help and go to a doctor. When you’re struggling internally, you should be able to ask for help. It’s not a sign of weakness.”

Richardson is finishing her freshman year at Cornell. Her Big Red teammates Brianne Jenner, Laura Fortino and Lauriane Rougeau are currently playing for Canada at the world championships.

Proceeds from a 50-50 draw, as well as a portion of ticket sales sold in a special purple section will go to D.I.F.D. workshops.

A video message from Canadian defenceman Tessa Bonhomme, who lost an aunt to suicide, played on the scoreboard Wednesday.

“If you feel like something is wrong, talk to your parents, teacher, coach, doctor or friends,” Bonhomme says. “If a friend tells you that they’re thinking of hurting themselves, take them seriously and get help. This is one secret you must not keep.”

Bonhomme learned about D.I.F.D. when she skated on the CBC television show “Battle of the Blades.” Each competitor on the figure-skating show raised funds for a cause and NHL player Bryan Berard chose D.I.F.D.

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“I had an aunt that suffered from mental illness and I know what it’s like to go through all of that,” Bonhomme said. “I remember she said to me ‘If you ever make the national team and you’re able to make a difference in the world or create something, I really hope you create awareness around mental illness because it’s not an easy thing to deal with.'”

Morgan’s mother Stephanie Richardson believes the women’s world championship is a powerful vehicle for the D.I.F.D. message.

“With a venue like this and having girls like that step up and be such role models, that will reach many people,” she said. “It reaches the young kids and it reaches older people.

“It gives people permission to talk about it and it takes away the shame. People realize it’s not just them. It’s allowed people who have had suicide in their family, it allows them to speak of it as well.

“Before, people really didn’t talk about it. It happened and people said it was an accident or they just didn’t discuss it.”

It took Morgan two years to talk publicly about Daron and take on the role of a spokesperson for D.I.F.D.

Stephanie Richardson says the support Morgan had from her Cornell teammates — the women’s hockey team wears purple D.I.F.D. jerseys on campus for example — has given Morgan confidence to speak publicly about her sister.

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“I miss my sister very much. Nothing can bring her back,” Morgan Richardson said.

“I think it’s really good to focus on encouraging other people to ask for help. It’s been a healing process for not just my family, but I think for a broader community as well to have something to encourage each other, support each other. It’s OK to ask for help, OK to reach out.”

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 24 per cent of all deaths among 15-24 year olds in Canada is by suicide, second only to accidents.

Stephanie Richardson implores children feeling depressed or suicidal to reach out and ask for help.

“Speak up and say when you’re not feeling well,” she said. “You’re too important to the rest of us to not.”