We need to talk about how we talk about depression and suicide in sports.
Stephen Johns revealed earlier this week he struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts during his recovery from post-traumatic headaches and post-traumatic syndrome. But how this was talked about on local radio overshadowed his story a bit.
Hockey has a specific culture, one in which a player that plays through pain is turned into hero-worship, where players don’t always report when they’re having concussion symptoms so they can play. It’s the sport that touts having the toughest athletes, where a team eliminated from the playoffs has a litany of injuries that come to light that players gritted through in the quest to lift the Stanley Cup.
It’s really not hard to see where hero worship comes from.
It’s likely one factor — among many others in hockey culture — as to why players rarely speak out about harder topics, such as mental health, including addiction, depression, suicide. It hasn’t been until recently players have felt comfortable talking about these sides to their stories. Often, it’s told in a format in which the player has established trust with a reporter to help tell the nuance of their story in a careful, thoughtful way.
That’s what Stars defenseman Stephen Johns did when he opened up to Sean Shapiro at The Athletic earlier this week. While most knew Johns missed 22 months due to post-concussion headaches and post-traumatic syndrome, the harrowing journey he had in coming back to the NHL was beneath the surface.
In more than three hours of conversations with Shapiro, Johns shared what he was comfortable with being known about his struggles. It’s not surprising Johns spoke at length with Shapiro, who has covered him since Dallas acquired him in July 2015. An established trust is paramount when choosing to tell these stories publicly. It’s a nuanced topic that can be painful when reliving one of the most horrible times in someone’s life. It’s hard enough without having to worry about how it could be portrayed or how details will be handled that allows people to understand what someone was going through without making it harder on the person that went through it.
On Wednesday, Johns discussed his journey with The Ticket, the Stars’ flagship station. The interview was good with questions you’d expect to be asked about how he’s doing and walking through the beginning of his post-traumatic headaches. After Johns explained riding in a cab and trying to answer a simple question, “What do you like to do for fun?” and saying he hadn’t been able to provide an answer because the last six months hadn’t been fun or held any kind of bright spot in it — a time Johns described as the “lowest part of my life for sure” — Ticket host Norm Hitzges pulled the interview into a shocking direction by requesting Johns to, “tell us about the suicide notes you constructed in your mind.”
Hitzges was unequivocally wrong to approach such a personal topic this way.
One would expect someone with Hitzges’ 45 years of experience would understand not to do that. It was insensitive to want to have Johns relieve those thoughts. Mental health is a spectrum that varies wildly from day to day and hour to hour that’s not black or white. Hitzges’ wording could easily lead someone to slide from one end of the spectrum to the other quickly.
When I shared the interview on Twitter, I was perplexed to see not everyone thought Hitzges was wrong. There were some that did, but those that didn’t are why this conversation is important.
If Hitzges’ intention was to talk about the effects depression had on Johns, this was not how to do it. There’s no way of knowing what was or wasn’t discussed before the interview in terms of which topics that were on or off the table for Johns’ appearance. I assumed it wouldn’t need to be specifically called out to “not ask about his suicide notes.”
This is common sense. The simple element of human compassion not to do it at all, and instead ask more broad questions that frame the effects being depressed had on him. If Johns speaks to the suicidal notes himself, that’s him letting someone into his truth.
No one has any right to the deepest recesses of someone’s mind unless they give us the invitation to join them there by sharing it themselves in their own time and of their own volition. Putting him on the spot, and hearing Johns’ sigh before he declined to answer, Hitzges came across as insensitive to the topic.
It shows we all could and should learn how to communicate better about depression and suicide in sports, no matter how experienced or educated or trusted you are. Because if media members continue to ask such questions like this, how many people could be put off by coming forward with their own mental health struggles if that’s the kind of response they think people will have? Opening up about mental health is hard enough without throwing up additional barriers or making someone constantly relive their worst feelings by providing details — and thinking we are entitled to them is the first thing that needs to stop.