Former NHL star Theo Fleury helps Mohawk College talk about mental health

Former Calgary Flames star Theo Fleury speaks to students about his addiction, depression and suicide attempt at the Mental Health Expo.
Theo Fleury describes the moments before his suicide attempt at his former home in Santa Fe to attendees at Mohawk College's Mental Health Expo Wednesday. (Julia Chapman/CBC)

Steve Kosh has seen a prominent shift in what Mohawk College students are looking for from their student union.

"Three or four years ago, we were all about concerts, commonalities and entertaining students," he said. "Now, that has shifted and students are asking for less of that and more support dealing with mental health issues."

Kosh, the marketing and communications coordinator for the Mohawk Student Association and a 2004 graduate, can easily list common problems his students face.

"Busier lives, more part-time jobs, more stress here on campus, shorter semesters," he said.

These are just four reasons why the student association partnered with the college to hold the first Mental Health Expo Wednesday. The goal is to get students to start the conversation about getting help on campus, Kosh said.

"We've seen a rise [in mental health problems] here in terms of the complexity that students are coming forward with," said Basilia Iatomasi, a counselor at Mohawk College.

"What's interesting is it's not just here, it's people coming forward at colleges and universities in North America, in the UK, so it's something we're seeing overall."

More problems, more conversation

Anxiety, depression and biopolar disorder are the common issues that people come to Iatomasi with.

Kosh said another problem is stress leading to binge drinking and drug use.

But both say what's really important is that it's also becoming more common for students to talk to others about mental health.

"I love walking down the hall and saying hi to students," Kosh said. "And for the first time, I said 'Hey, how are you doing today?' and [a student] said 'Not good. I've been here for two weeks, I have no friends and I don't know how to get involved. I don't know where I fit in.' We're seeing that more and more often, and people are willing to talk about it."

To encourage more conversations, the expo's organizers brought in some star power to show that mental health issues can affect anyone.

"My whole life I struggled with anxiety and depression," said former NHL player Theo Fleury, the Expo's keynote speaker. "There is a stigma around mental health for some reason — that if we admit we have a problem, we are weak. But my experience has been it takes an incredible amount of integrity and self-love to talk about your problems."

Fleury, who used drugs and alcohol to cope with scars from sexual abuse, told a crowd of more than a hundred about his experience with attempted suicide.

"If you are struggling, it's OK to reach out," he said. "I had a gun in my mouth because I was too stubborn to ask for help."

Back inside the hallway at the busy student centre, students stop at tables manned by friendly peers and offering information about places on campus where they can find that help.

Kosh said counseling services have "revved up" their on-campus presence with a social inclusivity room and an in-house counselor in residence to make sure students are taking care of themselves.

"We're starting to get past the 'it's an illness.' It's not. It's something students and people in general deal with, and the community at large," he said.