The Unchartered Territory of Concussions and Mental Health

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Ice hockey is a great game, but it’s also a tough game. On the physical side, I was prepared to accept the massive amount of major injuries I sustained across a 12 year hockey career, along with the ensuing arthritis that now affects many parts of my body. I knew full well that these things came with the sport. In stark contrast, what I wasn’t ready for was the factors that led me to prolonged depression and even suicidal ideologies, due to the mental health complications derived from my 7 documented concussions.

Post-concussion syndrome can be surprisingly isolating for professional athletes. If you’re a sports celebrity, most people assume you’re living the dream, even if your day to day reality is more like living a nightmare.

Sleeping until 3pm, experiencing light sensitivity, slurred speech, insomnia, anxiety and depression, are all things I’ve had to face which culminated in life-threatening situations. This is something I didn’t understand was going to be part of my career. And that’s a problem, because as a pro hockey player, I was certainly never educated on the reality of these risks.

I also wasn’t aware of the long-term struggle. I actually started to change my life well before I retired, when I was 25. In the last 5 years of my career it helped me make it to the Stanley Cups Final 5 times with 3 different teams. Yet even today I consider myself in recovery, still learning how to manage symptoms and how to get through the difficult periods.

The Bigger Picture of Concussions

Almost all the media focus on the repercussions of mTBI’s is centered around CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which is only diagnosable post-mortem, making its true prevalence difficult to know. This is a big educational problem, because concussions are about far much more than CTE.

A really important fact for people to understand, is that repetitive head injuries come with the risks of a whole range of serious cognitive diseases. For hockey players who’ve had a concussion, with just 3 more mTBI’s, they are 80% more susceptible to host of chronic neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, ALS, and Lewy Body Dementia, and this is just what is has been found by medical science to date.

I’ve witnessed players suffering the effects of neurodegenerative diseases and experienced some of them first hand. It’s literally frightening just how much these can rob you of your short and long term memory, you’re ability to just even function, and in fact your very personality. This can happen even at a relatively young age.

It’s also not just about hockey, or even collision sports per se. Most concussions actually happen in daily life, anything from accidental falls to domestic violence. Pretty much everyone has someone in their family who has suffered the lasting effects of brain injuries, which commonly go undiagnosed.  For me, concussions in sports is platform to raise awareness of the much broader importance of mental health and wellness generally.

Facing Up to the Changes Needed in Hockey

For the record I love hockey. I always have and always will. That said, I have no doubts at all that the NHL needs better concussion baselines, which is why I’ve been campaigning for changes in concussion protocols since my career years. I’ve been also calling out for the help which players need to be able to effectively recover from associated conditions like anxiety and depression.

Concussion baselines need to be far more robust than simple assessments that are vulnerable to cheating and have low diagnosis accuracy.  They should be include assessments of balance, vestibular, autonomic, and cognitive systems under a proper sports medicine approach.

However, what’s is of paramount importance is providing true and accurate information that players and parents need to be to make the right decisions on whether or not they want to play the sport. If athletes fully understand the risks and are willing to take them, then it’s fair play.

The Path Forward

For those already suffering with the repercussions of brain injuries, I’ve learned that education and support is absolutely crucial to managing mental health issues. With the right kind of recovery help, which for me included plant medicines, my life was literally saved. My self-esteem and social relationships improved dramatically, especially in being more patient and understanding with my wife and children.

Today I’m currently doing 15 projects which involve creative entrepreneurship and advocacy work. This includes helping hockey players who have suffered concussions or physical abuse tell their stories, which played an instrumental role in the NHL becoming the last major North American sports league to create a code of conduct for players and coaches.

On retirement I created a charitable organization in the US called the Chapter 5 Foundation – representing the next chapter of athletes lives, and more personally, 5 was my the number of teammate and close friend Steve Montador. Tragically, Steve died from widespread CTE after being cleared from 19 concussions.

The foundation actively assists players who are struggling with post-concussion syndrome, anxiety or depression. It’s essentially transition program to help athletes get back into life after the game. You would be surprised how pro athletes need even very simple kinds of support. This is because most leave high school at 16 years, remaining insulated from normal life throughout their careers. You just don’t really mature as a person – when I retired at 30, I was still 16 inside.

The Uncharted Mental Health Tour

Right now, I’m proud to be in full swing with the Uncharted Mental Health speaking tour. Part of it is simply about telling my own story to provide people with authentic insights from a veteran hockey player’s perspective. However, we keep it very real and practical on the tour as well, especially when speaking at schools.  I cover a lot about how to recognize the telltale signs and symptoms of brain injuries, and when to seek proper diagnosis and care. There are so many things we can do, instead of just reaching for the pill bottle.

I talk about my morning routine, stimulating my brain, my meditation practices and breathing methods. Also giving guidance on things like how sitting with yourself and understanding your own thoughts to be aware enough to feel free of judgement, and how to seek psychological self-empowerment. And then why self-regulating your lifestyle choices like diet, hydration, exercise, exposure to nature, and nurturing the right social relationships, are key life skills for taking control of your own psychological wellness on a daily basis.

The Uncharted Tour is a partnership with Ducky Brand Apparel, founded by elite junior hockey player Aidan Girduckis. Girduckis gave up an extremely promising NHL career at just 21 years old, after his own battle to overcome post-concussion syndrome. On a quest to help fund treatments for mental illness, the company donates 30% of all their revenue. It’s just a great initiative all round, which I’d love to see more of.

About Daniel Carcillo

As a pro hockey player, Dan had a prolific career competing at the highest echelons of the NHL, playing 429 games in the league. Most known as former player of the Chicago Blackhawks and a two-time Stanley Cup champion, he retired in 2015, to dedicating himself to mental health advocacy, both inside and outside of sports.

With remarkable authenticity, Dan speaks with his heart on his sleeve. As such as he has quickly become a leading voice for mental health awareness. Going further, he is also an instrumental catalyst for instituting change in sports and health legislation to address unmet mental health needs.

If you’d like to learn about the Uncharted Tour, then listen to the Dan Carcillo Mental Health Tour Chat podcast with FootyOnTheAir

You can also gain more insights into first hand concussion experiences in this great video with Dan and UFC champion Cris Cyborg.

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