Freezing the mental health stigma

Two St. John’s hockey coaches have started an awareness campaign in memory of their high school teammate.

Jessica Davis, left, and Emily Parsons started the campaign as a small event between the under 18 teams they coach. Their initial goal was to let their players know they are there to talk about more than hockey. Submitted photo

Sara-Dani Strickland
Kicker News 

Jessica Davis and Emily Parsons are preaching the importance of mental health awareness, especially to athletes. As former competitive hockey players themselves, they say there is a lot of pressure on female athletes to perform well. They want to make sure their players can talk about their mental health in an open environment.

As coaches with the Eastern Ice Breakers, the pair decided to start their mental health awareness campaign in 2020 shortly after their former teammate Maddy Murphy died by suicide in September 2019.

Davis and Parsons met Maddy through the Rothesay Netherwood School prep hockey program in New Brunswick. The prep hockey team is an elite program that consists of players who are scouted from all over the country. When Parsons arrived at the school for Grade 10, Maddy immediately made her presence known.

“She was a Grade 12 student when I first got there, I went into the dressing room and she was standing up on the bench saying ‘welcome,’” said Parsons, waving her arms the way Maddy did on that day. “She was really excited cause there was a bunch of us that were new that year.”

Maddy’s father, Mike Murphy, says his daughter was loved by everyone and was a respected athlete. Murphy spent hours travelling and watching his talented daughter hit the ice for teams all across North America. Summer or winter, Maddy was always playing hockey for some team some where.

While it was clear that his daughter loved hockey, he believes it may have had a negative impact on her mental health.

“I think she used her sports as a form of relieving stress or helping her out or keeping her mind occupied from other things,” said Murphy. “I also think that sports put undue stress on her to do well. She was always competitive, but I think she expected too much from herself.”

His daughter, says Murphy, suffered from depression. But just before she died, he thought things were turning around. She had been attending counselling, taking medication, and enjoying life as an athlete at the University of New Brunswick.

“I think she got tired and just lost the battle.” – Mike Murphy

“Here we were, fooled as parents, thinking she was coming around and getting better and all of a sudden she took her life,” said Murphy.

When Davis heard the news that her friend and teammate took her own life, she was in shock.

“Once it happened, I flew up and went to the funeral and spent a few days in New Brunswick with the Murphy family,” said Davis.

While many were left in a state of shock like Davis, Murphy knew he couldn’t grieve in silence. He thought his daughter was in a good place in her life, working four jobs and playing multiple sports. The Murphy family didn’t know Maddy was fighting on the inside.

“I think she got tired and just lost the battle,” said her father.

That’s when the family decided to start the Maddy Murphy Memorial Foundation, an awareness campaign sharing Maddy’s story.

“I couldn’t live with myself if I just let that go,” said Murphy. “That’s why I told the story.”

Watching his daughter play hockey was one of Mike Murphy’s favourite things to do. Along with being a team leader, he says his daughter Maddy had a slapshot that could take a head off. Submitted photo

While Murphy was sharing his daughter’s memory online, Davis knew she had to do something in Newfoundland and Labrador. She shared her idea to bring mental health awareness into their locker room with Parsons and the idea took off from there.

“Being in a different province, we couldn’t contribute to what they (the Murphy family) were doing locally,” said Parsons. “But we still wanted to do something so that’s how it started.”

Along with preaching the importance of mental health to their players, the coaches hosted a mental health awareness night, using donated ice time to host a skills competition open to the public. The event raised over $5,000 for the Maddy Murphy Memorial Foundation.

After the COVID-19 pandemic postponed plans to do any fundraising, Davis and Parsons decided it was time to take a new approach. That’s when they established Break the Ice, an online mental health awareness campaign.

The campaign focuses on spreading positive messages and resources for those who are struggling with mental health, while also doing fundraising events with proceeds going to the foundation.

The Murphy family uses all proceeds to spread mental health awareness throughout New Brunswick. The family places signs along roadways with numbers to mental health crisis lines, provides resources for those seeking counselling, and offers a scholarship for high school students planning to enter the mental health field.

When he was told her former teammates were spreading the message in this province, Murphy was ecstatic.

“Jessica and Emily thought it’d be great to turn around and try to bring that awareness to Newfoundland,” said Murphy. “They’re bringing awareness and they’re starting to make changes over there which is unbelievable.”

Murphy is working with Davis and Parsons to bring a post-secondary scholarship in Maddy’s honour to the province. Meanwhile, Break the Ice is organizing free virtual events with mental health professionals and to give tips on self care and mental wellbeing. The fundraising event will take place in the first week of May and encourages people to get active, which can benefit one’s mental health.

“The idea is to track everyone’s kilometres that registers,” said Davis. “We’re going to try and see if we can get enough kilometres (logged) to go (from) St. John’s to Maddy’s hometown, Saint John, N.B. You can either walk, run, hike, row, bike, whatever you want to do to move.”

“In the first half of the season we always had to get on a bus to get to the arena and she would be dancing at the front of the bus and getting everyone hyped up for practice.” – Emily Parsons

Although many knew Maddy suffered from depression, she was known as the life of the party. Parsons recalls her former teammate as a leader who made sure no one ate alone at the table.

“In the first half of the season we always had to get on a bus to get to the arena and she would be dancing at the front of the bus and getting everyone hyped up for practice,” said Parsons. “You always knew when she was there.”

The loss of his daughter, says Murphy, is something he will never get over. But he wants parents to make sure they’re checking in on their child’s mental health, even when they believe they’re in a good place.

“I just want people to know that Maddy was a normal kid,” said Murphy. “She had the best of life, but here we ended up in the same situation. It doesn’t matter what walk of life you come from, it can happen to anybody.”

If you are or someone you know is in a crisis, here’s where to get help: NL Mental Health Crisis Line (24 hour) 1-888-737-4668 or Kids Help Phone (24 hour): 1-800-668-6868.

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