How Patrice Bergeron helped a teammate navigate his mental health
What Patrice Bergeron means to Boston as he approaches his 1,000th game
Professional sports might not be for the faint of heart, but the people that play them are still human. Veteran Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron knows that well, having played in the NHL — a sport that requires both mental and physical toughness of the highest order — for 18 seasons.
But the mental health side of things, he says, often wasn’t part of the discussion.
“I think it’s something that, I guess earlier in my career it was not something we were talking a lot about, even though it was still very important,” the longtime Bruin said after the team’s first captain’s practice Monday. “It was something that was almost taboo at times and frowned upon.”
Now, Bergeron says he’s seeing the more public discussion about mental health among athletes — from NBA stars Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan acknowledging struggles with anxiety and depression to the likes of gymnastics legend Simone Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaki prioritizing mental health above competition — starting to take place in his league more regularly.
“I think it’s great that it’s a little bit more out there and that people realize that it’s OK at times to be vulnerable and it’s OK to ask for and seek help. It’s important to do,” he said.
Of late, the sagas of Osaka and Biles especially have served as internationally discussed examples of Bergeron’s point.
The rising tennis star Osaka notably withdrew from the French Open after admitting mental health concerns regarding her media responsibilities. She has since said she plans to take an indefinite break from tennis after a loss at the U.S. Open.
Biles, the most decorated woman gymnast in history, withdrew from several competitive gymnastic events in the Olympics after battling the “twisties” and fearing for her physical and mental wellbeing.
Despite criticism from some corners of the athletic and public world, both received support for their decisions and the discourse they helped bring to the forefront about mental health in sports.
“For us as athletes, I think we have a platform to show that we also go through some of that stuff, and that it’s important to reach out,” Bergeron said. “I’ve said that many times, to not suffer alone. I think for me, it’s been a learning process over my career, where there’s been a lot of ups and downs. There’s a lot of pressure, I guess, and expectations — from yourself, from the outside, from your team, whatever that is.
“There’s also a lot of personal matters as well that come into play and you have to deal with as a regular, normal human being. I think there’s a lot of things that go with that question. There’s a lot of things you need to realize, that it’s OK to ask and to seek help and to have those conversations. It’s OK to reach out to your teammates or your work colleagues or friends to help in that matter.”
The veteran Bruins center has spoken about his own struggles with depression after suffering a season-ending concussion in 2007, saying he ended up “in a dark place for a while” and “didn’t feel like himself.” When that happened, he credited being able to lean on family, teammates and sports psychologists to help him find his way.
He then paid that experience forward to help Gemel Smith, a young player who was deep in his own battle with depression when he briefly joined the Bruins last season. Bergeron reached out to Smith after he arrived in Boston after being claimed off waivers from the Dallas Stars and reiterated that familiar message: Smith “didn’t have to suffer alone.”
“To know that [Bergeron] went through the same experience lets me know I’m no better than anyone else to not tell another person,” Smith said during an interview with TSN after their conversation. “Talking about it] helped me a lot. It helped me to be aware of the situation and not ashamed of the situation. Patrice helped me stay with it, and here I am now.”
Bergeron notes sports psychologists like Massachusetts General Hospital’s Dr. Stephen Durant, who works with both the Bruins and Red Sox, have had an increased role in helping athletes address their mental health more comfortably.
He also says sometimes, “getting away” from the game can be beneficial for one’s health as well, which is something forward Chris Wagner admitted strained players’ mental wellbeing even further last season.
“It’s OK to have a bad day,” Bergeron said. “It’s totally normal. It’s OK to feel down or whatnot. It’s about what you’re able to accept and what you want to do with it and how you want to handle that.
“I think getting away from — for myself, it’s getting away from hockey at times. I have three kids that I have to chase around on a daily basis. I think that helps me get away from the game, and I think it’s been great that way to be a dad. If I want to get out of the rink, it kind of helps me put things in perspective and be thankful for everything life has given me…to get away from things and try to empty your mind is very important as a professional athlete.”
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