Inner turmoil hidden behind 'game face'

IAN ROBERTSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:59 PM ET

TORONTO - Depressed people — especially tough-guy pro athletes — often disguise inner turmoil, two psychiatrists said Thursday.

Ordered to fight, enforcers such as ex-Leaf Wade Belak, who police sources say took his own life Wednesday in a Toronto hotel, realize their careers depend on strong fronts that can end without options, U of T Prof. David Goldbloom and Dr. Irvin Wolkoff said.

Plagued with arthritis, Belak recently retired from the Nashville Predators and was in Toronto to rehearse for the Battle of the Blades reality TV show.

Friends said he appeared typically cheerful.

“There is no investigation,” Toronto Police spokesman Mark Pugash said. “It’s not being treated as a suspicious death.”

Goldbloom and Wolkoff are not sports psychologists, and neither knew Belak, but they weren’t surprised friends and colleagues are struggling for clues to what drove the usually happy married father of two to kill himself.

Some said he did not enjoy battling.

“I don’t want to oversimplify the complexity of human experience and illness that, in Canada, leads to 4,000 people” from all walks of life, including rich, poor, young and old, annually take their own lives “for a variety of reasons,” said Goldbloom, a senior Centre for Addiction and Mental Health medical adviser.

Stars suffer constant stress to keep performing, but some feel ashamed or guilty for keeping up appearances to hold onto their jobs, fearing the stigma of disclosing their problems, or becoming a burden, he said.

“In order to protect other people, you may put on your ‘game face,’ ” Goldbloom said, adding “a hockey jersey is no insulation.”

Wolkoff said pressure to perform unsatisfying tasks can also leave participants depressed, citing “men who fight without hostility,” plus female sex-trade workers who “do it without desire.”

Lesser-known athlete issues include injuries — especially concussions that can cause depression, anxiety, confusion, fatigue, dizziness, anger and result in drug and booze abuse.

“We’re still in the relatively early stages of analysing the significance of recurrent head injuries,” Goldbloom said.

He could not address addictions that killed high-profile hockey and football enforcers and players, but “the use of alcohol in excessive amounts, and drugs, can complicate the clinical picture and the risk of suicide.”


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