Monday, February 16, 2015

It's time to end the social stigma about depression

Depression is a silent killer.

It kills hopes and dreams. It drains willpower and physical energy. It destroys relationships. It separates us from loved ones. It wastes man hours, costs us productivity, and leaves people dysfunctional. At its very worst, it makes its victims so hopeless with despair over their situation, feeling that there is no way out, that they take their own lives.

Depression doesn't discriminate. It affects the young, the old, and those in the prime of their lives. Men or women, straight or gay, no matter your religion or skin color - depression doesn't care. The rich can't buy a preventive barrier, and the poor are even more likely to suffer from it.

Depression can be as simple as "feeling a little under the weather", if it's persistent for more than just a couple days. It can make everyday chores like laundry and dishes be major obstacles. It can make you feel like you're lost, treading water, unable to get your head up enough for fresh air and sunshine. It can be triggered by weather or diet or illness or any number of things.

I've seen family and friends and co-workers be victims. And I, too, have fought my own battle. Nearly 10% of the population will face depression at some point in their life - and some 80% of those affected will never get diagnosed and/or receive treatment. If you think you don't know anybody who's battled depression, you may not recognize the signs: 

Many people who suffer from depression do not seek help because of the stigmas that surround this illness, coupled with denial. "I don't want people to think I'm nuts." "I'm not depressed, I'm just tired/overworked/it's been a rough week/I'm not eating right."

My grandfather had Alzheimer's for several years before his death. My great-aunt had dementia in her final months. These are also mental illnesses, degenerative brain functioning often accompanied by depression - and yet they are not regarded with the same stigmas and denial that depression is. Perhaps it is because Alzheimer's and dementia are most commonly seen in the elderly, and are accepted as one of the many ways that the body breaks down late in life. Although there is no cure for Alzheimer's, we hasten to put advanced victims into care facilities where they can have the kind of round-the-clock care necessary for them. People are patient and even kind with those under the grips of Alzheimer's or similar mental diseases; but do not treat those with depression the same way.

Your relative has Alzheimer's? "Gosh, that's terrible, what a shame, they'll be in my prayers."

You think you have depression? "Snap out of it!"

If only it were that easy.

Depression is frequently not as visible. Sometimes it is quite mild - minor mood swings, insomnia, lack of energy - and people mistake their depression for something else. Many people are functional "enough" with depression that they manage to cover up any signs of their illness. Depression can accompany or even mask other diseases.

A few years before my father died, he suddenly fell ill with acute depression not long after returning from a trip abroad. It was like somebody had flipped a switch on his personality. He went from a colorful, gregarious, bold personality to a man that could barely function around his own home. His sleeping habits were poor, he lost his appetite, he lost weight. He had to be forced to take a shower, get dressed, and have his bed made daily. He couldn't even stand to watch any TV - partially because he was unable to follow a 30-minute program for the whole show, but also because he'd simply lost interest. He'd lay on his made bed in the dark bedroom and stare at the ceiling all day. His behavior was like a combination of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's - he was forgetful, his hands would shake, his handwriting became terrible, his short-term memory wasn't functioning correctly. Accompanying the depression - and making it more difficult for the doctors to correctly diagnose him - was that he began to suffer from paranoia as well. He didn't have hallucinations, but there was clearly something very, very wrong with him.

It was frightening. 

No, not just frightening: terrifying. It was a complete 180 of his personality, and there wasn't anything we could personally do to help "fix" it.

I saw him like this for the first time just a few weeks after it began, and the changes were huge, and startling. He'd gained circles so dark under his eyes that it looked like they'd been smudged with charcoal. He wore an expression of fear as he slowly shuffled around his own home - the paranoia that accompanied his depression crowded out rational thought. His voice wasn't the same, and when he did speak, it was in fear of what what happening to him, beyond his control.

You don't know how to react when someone you know is that far gone, when they're not responding very much to medications, when all you can feel about the situation is a feeling of helplessness. And you try your damndest to contain your natural reactions of irritation as their abnormal behavior grinds away at your ingrained expectations of what their behavior should be.

An early consultation with a doctor at a major clinic suggested that he might have Lewy Body Dementia, the same dementia-related disease that Blackhawks great Stan Mikita is suspected to suffer from, as announced a few weeks ago. As it turns out, that doctor was wrong - nearly 25% of LBD cases are mis-diagnosed. In the meantime, he went to the local hospital, and was repeatedly treated by the VA system. They tried out just about every drug on the market on him. Eventually, many months after the depression first manifested, they would find a set of treatments that worked for him, but by the time he was finally starting to approach a new kind of normal, he'd been suffering a bunch of other health problems, including lung cancer, which were slowly destroying his overall physical health.

When it comes to depression, we all too often make light of the person suffering ("snap out of it") or we ignore the symptoms - and the problem, unless it becomes undeniable. But when it comes to depression, it shouldn't be ignored. Depression is not only about the victim, but how it affects others - and how it is affected by others.

If depression is mild, it may be as simple as a sick day at work spent home in bed, or some briefly ignored housework. Most people with depression can still be quite functional - get up, go to work, even perform their jobs well and with a smile on their face. But then they go home and have a hard time facing chores around the house. They turn down social invitations not because they don't want to go, but because it feels like a tremendous effort to do something like getting dressed up and heading across town. They may ignore their own fitness, giving up on physical routines or eating poorly -- and this is a bit ironic, as exercise generates endorphins, which helps a person feel more positive.

At these levels - when the victim is still functional at their job, and puts on a happy face in public - most people don't realize how much the person is suffering. Not every person feels hopeless or so far gone that suicidal thoughts enter their head; many simply feel exhausted, run down, say that they have a "lack of energy". At stronger levels, it becomes far worse; and once depression is undeniably noticeable, it strongly affects the people around the victim - family and caregivers who need to spend much of their time and effort keeping that person from hurting themselves and in safe conditions.

Depression affects individuals, but it's a community disease. For all the research that has been done, we still don't know enough about how the brain works or what causes depression - only that it can't be predicted or prevented, only treated once it begins to manifest signs.

That is why movements like #BellTalks are important. The stigma around depression has to be removed. Depression affects nearly 10% of the population at any given time, and being afraid or ashamed to seek help at the early signs can lead to far worse conditions.

People who have to help or live with those with depression need to have resources and places they, too, can turn to for support.

The hardest part about depression is that we're so conditioned to the stigmas that surround mental health that people are afraid to ask for help, or they wrap themselves in denial. It's very easy for us to tweet out a message of support, or say, "Pick up the phone and talk to a hotline". If it becomes a huge effort to do some mindless easy task like wash an evening's dishes, how easy do you think it is for that person to pick up the phone to a stranger, or even to a friend, and say, "I need help"?

Sometimes, it's a friend or family member or coworker that has to have the strength to pick up the phone, and say, "How can I help my friend/coworker/family member?" Or even to just sit down and tell that person, "I've noticed you seem to be struggling a bit lately. What can I do to help?"

As we've seen rather all too frequently, some of the people who are in the spotlight - celebrities and sports figures who it would appear to have it all, to have their lives together - have shown us that depression doesn't discriminate, and that depression can be more powerful than fame and money. Robin Williams, a universally-beloved comedian who had a rich and varied career, took his own life at 63 last summer. Kurt Cobain, at the height of Nirvana's rise to fame, ended his own life. Famous athletes - ranging from old-timers like Cy Morgan (MLB) to more recent ones like Rick Rypien and Wade Belak (both NHL) have done it.

That's the greatest misconception about depression: that people who suffer from it are weak. If anything, people who suffer from depression and manage to overcome it are incredibly strong. It takes a lot to succeed against your own brain when it's telling you that things are wrong with you, and your body is working against you.

That's why it is so important for leagues like the NHL and NFL - which lead pro sports in head injuries - to take mental health very seriously. It's why we have to end the stigma around mental health, depression, and anxiety - why we have to stop making feel as if they will be rejected or ridiculed when what they really need is help. People who are bullied or harassed will often fall victim to depression, which is why it is good that a lot of effort is being expended to stop bullying, sexism, and homophobia.

Mental health is a community issue. It's time we started treating it like one.

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US: for more information on depression, anxiety, and other mental diseases: National Institute of Mental Health

US & Canada: National Suicide Prevention Hotline: (800) 273-8255 (800-273-TALK), available 24/7, online chat also available
US (LGBT-specific): The Trevor Project
Australia: Lifeline & Kids Help Line (for those 5-25)
Ireland & UK: Samaritans
UK: PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide 
New Zealand: Lifeline New Zealand

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Good, the Meh, and Thoughts on Ways to Improve the All-Star Game (top 5 lists)

This past weekend, the NHL held its 60th  All-Star Game in Columbus. The Blue Jackets faithful opened their arms and welcomed fans from around the league, showing off their city. Happily for Columbus, both media and fans came away from the weekend praising their time in the city. (Hint: if you visit, enjoy time beyond of the Arena District; there's lots of cool things to explore in Columbus!)

Columbus and CBJ created an outdoor festival park called the All-Star Winter Park which included a giant snow slide and a skating rink, among other attractions.

All-Star Games are kind of weird. Fans and media will mock them for being pointless other than A) showing off the sponsors and B) being a cash-grab from jersey/merchandise sales, and yet people tune in to watch and will live-Tweet what's going on. People who attend the All-Star Game in person know that it's a friendly party/celebration weekend for hockey people where you might run into a mega-star hockey player nursing a beer at a local bar.

You have a number of players who'll talk about being honored to be there. Then there's others who imply it's part and parcel of choosing to be a professional athlete. And finally, those players who beg out behind the scenes, or come down with an injury prior to the All-Star Weekend.  Whatever their view of it being an honor or obligation, the players pretty much agree to play at moderate speeds, with no hits and practically no defense (because they don't want to get hurt for the real games) - which - let's face it - makes for some dull hockey.

But wait! you say. This game had a record number of goals; goals aren't dull, how can this be dull hockey? When there's no defense, and more importantly, no pace, no speed - the game gets boring, so it's not necessarily the highlight event of the weekend. In fact, the skills competition generally generates more buzz, because it really shows off the skill that these players have to compete at the NHL level.

The Sportvision test held during the weekend showed the potential for the game and the future of statistics. At-home viewers were able to see things like players' ice speed and puck maneuverings. The broadcast analysts acknowledged that the All-Star Game probably wasn't the best example for collecting data, as players were not going full, normal speeds. As the NHL explores Sportsvision use further, it will probably not make all statistics gleaned from it available to the public, but it certainly offers plenty of potential to improve broadcasts and to collect more precise statistics.

So let's look back at the weekend, and discuss what was good, what was meh, and where the All-Star Game can improve.


5. The Fan Fair - While the Fan Fair mostly highlighted the sponsors, it also offered fans lots of ways to connect to the game and the league through playing various interactive displays (fasting shot, etc), which were fun. Naturally, being able to visit with the Stanley Cup was a highlight, but the line was often long. The league's various mascots were here for much of the day providing entertainment. While the majority of the Fan Fair was an opportunity of "take my money!" there were plenty of ways to watch a couple hours disappear.

4. The players obviously having fun with the weekend - Alex Ovechkin shamelessly begging to get a car out of the weekend, whether it was being picked last in the Draft or earning it as MVP. As it turns out, Ovechkin had a reason for it - he saw it as an opportunity to donate the care to the Ice Dogs, a special needs youth player hockey program in Virginia.

3. The mascots - This was my own first ASG, so I don't know how involved the mascots usually are. But the mascots were heavily involved throughout the weekend, making multiple appearances and hanging out at Fan Fair, playing a hockey game prior to the Skills competition, being active in the stands during events. It was fan-tastic.

2. Family time, and not just for fans - Whether it was hearing about Nick Folgino's daughter's heart surgery; Ryan Johansen borrowing the son of Mike Vogt, one of the team's trainers, to help him score a goal during the Breakaway Challenge; or seeing Darryl Sutter's son Chris doing some coaching on the bench, it was a reminder that it was some fun family time not just for the fans but also for the players.

1. The Draft - This year, the Fantasy Draft took place on Friday night before an audience of fans. While the players might have called it "hydration" or just "Red Bull", it was clear that there was something a little more... exotic in their cups. As a result, the players were loose, relaxed, and joking around throughout the Draft, which rolled along at a steady clip, and was often quite hilarious. It was great to see that the personalities of a wide range of players from across the league might not match perceptions of them. (Captain Not-So-Serious, anyone?)


5. Communications - Some of the schedule details were released late. Not everybody coming to the ASG is local, so knowing what's available, when, where, and how to participate are important when people want to plan their travel. For example, details surrounding the Fantasy Draft were released very late, so a lot of fans may not have realized they could attend it as part of the Fan Fair. For those interested in such events, the red carpet when/where info, signing events, etc - all details that could've been available online or via an app long prior to the weekend.

4. The Fan Fair didn't open until 3pm on Friday - As people travel from out of town for the weekend, there were definitely fans wandering around looking for things to do that afternoon. It would be good for it to open at noon on Friday. 

3. No re-entry for the Fan Fair once you left.  The Fair could get crowded and overwhelming at certain times of the day. If the lines got long, there wasn't an option to leave and come back later without paying for another ticket. Wanted to watch the Draft live on Friday, but had already been to Fan Fair earlier that day? Buy another ticket. Do a hand stamp/wrist band or something - anything - that allows fans unlimited in-and-out rights to the Fan Fair on the same day of their ticket; or have an all-weekend Fan Fair pass. 

2. Few chances to connect with the star players - There was one autograph stage at the Fan Fair, and the good thing was the players who were scheduled for it seemed willing and happy to sign as long as people lined up. However, the four sessions per day consisted mainly of the rookies and local team players. Columbus full-season ticket holders got to enjoy a private event on Thursday night to kick off the weekend (no half- or quarter-season ticket holders), and those who could afford $1K/ticket were able to enjoy a very cool "speakeasy" charity event on Thursday night as well. Perhaps slot in some "surprise" players for signings, or people being able to buy raffle tickets for a chance for meet-n-greets or signings, with proceeds going to charity, would give fans the chance to connect with the biggest stars of the NHL galaxy.
1. The jerseys - Oh, sure, they looked cool - something that you might find a snowboarder or motocross fan sporting. 

But the color choices turned out to be a problem. The numbers on the black jerseys were difficult to read at a distance, and the white jerseys blended into the color of the ice on TV. The design appealed to the young and hip, but in the environment of the rink lost its luster. Photographers also complained of issues photographing the jerseys under rink lights.  

In the modern NHL, white jerseys traditionally signify the visiting team. But why stick to that mentality in the All-Star Game? Fans can tell the difference between two different-colored jerseys, and it really makes them pop visually.

Let's take a look overseas at the KHL, who also held their All-Star Game this weekend. The KHL opted for two colors: red and blue. But they didn't have white visiting jerseys in their All-Star Game. Following European hockey style for special events, the teams wore all blue or all red, which really pops both in pictures and on video.

More importantly, the "All-Star Game" logo was the most prominent one on the jersey. Like the NHL, the KHL's logo is featured on the front center of the collar, and the logo repeats within the large All-Star logo as well. So why make has the NHL frequently made the league logo, not the event logo, the most noticeable logo on the actual jersey for All-Star Games?

The NHL is the only one of the major leagues who seems more concerned with making the league logo the most noticeable design element of the jersey. Do the fans not know what league they're watching and need to be reminded? If you explored the merchandise shops, it was the All-Star logo, not the NHL one, gracing most products; so why isn't the jersey the same way?


1. Spice up the Skills Competition -- Bring back some of the things that have been dropped/modified - for example, previous Speed Skating competitions included backwards skating and goalie skating, both very entertaining, and more interesting than four rounds of the same race. 

Add some more ways that goalies can help compete - if we're not taking things all that seriously this weekend, why not include some goalie-on-goalie shooting in the Breakout Challenge? Most goalies probably list "scoring a goal" on their personal career secret bucket list, why not give them the blatant opportunity to do so?

Nobody in this year's Breakaway contest had a move so crazy as the KHL All-Star Game, which featured the grocery cart goal, nor any goals quite so slick as Nikita Gusev's joyful spin-o-rama lacrosse-style goal during the Skills Competition night.

Oh, if only Gaudreau had been allowed to set his stick on fire!

2. Find some ways to improve fan involvement other than just hashtag voting -  For example: have a "design the All-Star jersey" contest (it certainly wouldn't be any worse than some of the jerseys the league has designed); winner gets a home and away team jersey, and a VIP trip to the All-Star Weekend, including a meet-and-greet with their favorite ASG player.

3. Widen the offerings at the Fan Fair - Most of the sponsored things to do at the Fan Fair were fun, and related to the game. One way that they could make the event even more interested would be to have Q&A/speaking panels. The Blackhawks do this at their annual Convention, and they're well-attended, fun, and interesting. Gary Bettman could host a Q&A session. There could be a panel with NHL Network personalities and PHWA members discussing how to get into sports reporting. Hockey writers and personalities who've written a book in the past year could give a discussion about their book. The potential is limitless.

4. Give the players some incentive to inject some enthusiasm into the actual game part of the program - Sure, it's cool that "Mr. Irrelevant" and the game MVP get cars, who they'll probably pass along for charity purposes. But since the game doesn't count for any points and has no influence on anything in the season, the players play relatively conservatively, so they won't hurt themselves, which makes for some pretty boring hockey in a game filled with the best players in the world. They need something that gives them incentive to play above a pace best described as "turtle caution".

How about making a charity incentive for the winning team - perhaps $5K/player, $10K/captain/alternative captain to the players' charity of choice for the winning team. Or a $25K or $50K donation to a charity of the team captain's choosing or one voted upon by the winning team. Similar incentives could be used for players who set records in the Skills event.

5. If there's going to be dozens of goals (and there will always be plenty of goals in the All-Star Game), shake up the goal songs - Listening to the same goal song (or cannon going off) for a dozen or more goals doesn't do much to spice up what's already a dull game. Let the players pick individual goal songs, or play the songs that their corresponding team uses. It will help bring the crowd into it more.

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Overall, attending the NHL All-Star Game in person was a lot of fun. It's too bad that due to the Olympics and other events that it's not held every year.