Corey Hirsch: Mental-health awareness, acceptance key to ending stigma

While Hirsch’s hockey career thrived, he battled beneath the surface with obsessive-compulsive disorder that went undiagnosed for years.

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Kamloops Blazers legend and mental health advocate Corey Hirsch returns to the tournament capital about once a year, and on his most recent visit, he had a message for a packed hall of audience.

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The Memorial Cup-winning goaltender made the Tournament Capital one of his final stops as a speaker at the Independent Contractors and Business Association and shared his story of struggling with mental health with the Canadian Home Builders’ Association-Central Interior on Sept. 14 and the need for early education to end their stigma.

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“So we’re really going to make a difference,” Hirsch told the crowd at Colombo Lodge. “My generation, most of your generation, we are not educated. Mental health wasn’t talked about, which led to my problems. We must educate our children. Do you know how easy it would have been to tell me about OCD in high school?”

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In 1992, teenage Corey Hirsch stopped the Kamloops Blazers to the team’s first-ever Memorial Cup championship. In 1994 he won a Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers, who drafted him up, and took home an Olympic silver medal that same year.

But while Hirsch’s hockey career thrived, he struggled beneath the surface with OCD that went undiagnosed for years.

As an athlete, physical injury was easy to spot and diagnose, but with mental health, the problem was hidden, Hirsch explained.

After the Olympics, he said something in his brain “just broke” and he began having disturbing, repetitive thoughts that would haunt him 24/7 for the next three years, and included anxiety, panic attacks, weight loss and depression would cause.

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“I didn’t know what happened,” Hirsch said, noting that he would keep fighting, unaware that he suffered from OCD for three more years.

Hirsch said his mental health problems were so bad that he almost drove his car off a cliff in the Sahali area to kill himself in the mid-1990s because he felt he couldn’t live like this anymore after he it had not found any help for its condition and believed none to be found.

However, another bad thought from his OCD caused Hirsch to take his breaks before he could go over the edge.

“I was 10 seconds from being a statistic,” Hirsch said. “Not only did OCD control my life, it also controlled the fact that I couldn’t even kill myself. I was a prisoner in my own brain – there was no way out.”

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Determined to live with his illness, Hirsch said he decided not to tell anyone he was struggling for fear he would be stigmatized and the revelation would ruin his NHL career.

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“Mental illness is like anything else,” he said. “It’s like a broken leg. You can’t just push it away.”

Eventually, during a New Jersey street game, Hirsch reported his issues to the Vancouver Canucks and returned to Vancouver, where a therapist diagnosed his OCD and told him it was treatable.

Relieved to finally know what was wrong with him after years of suffering, Hirsch found he just needed to talk about it.

“I started screaming. Tears of sadness, tears of joy, tears of disbelief,” said Hirsch.

In addition to providing early education to end the stigma surrounding mental illness, Hirsch said there was a need to end the stigma surrounding drugs, noting that without them he would not be alive today.

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Hirsch said people with mental illnesses can develop substance abuse problems.

“It’s not a weakness to get help… and we need to start talking to people. Substance abuse is okay,” he said.

Hirsch also warned of the impact social media can have on youth, noting that the internet can be used as a tool or weapon.

“I’ve been booed by 20,000 people — I’m sure some of you guys have booed me at Memorial Arena at times — but I can handle stuff like that,” he said. “Our children can’t deal with such things.”

ICBA President Chris Gardner said Hirsch has presented about 25 lectures in BC for the organization over the past year and more are to come.

“Construction workers are over 90 percent male and it’s very stoic to do the job, you work your way through pain [field]’ Gardner said, noting that there’s a similar culture among NHL hockey players. He said Hirsch’s story resonates with those in the construction industry.

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Gardner said the suicide rate among construction workers is five times the Canadian national average, adding that the only way to change that is to have conversations.

“We need to curb the suicide rates that they have,” Hirsch said.

Hirsch, whose father was a plumber, said it’s important to reach out to this demographic and let them know it’s okay to seek help for mental health issues.

Gardner said the goal of the speaking engagements is to get people in the industry to feel more comfortable talking about their mental health.

The ICBA has more than 4,000 members across BC. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gardner said the organization noted that the top three medications requested by members in all of their health plans were to treat depression, anxiety and sleep disorders. The ICBA then took the initiative to start a free mental health program in the construction industry, which led to the partnership with Hirsch.

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