Sick, not weak: Steve Seftel slashes the stigma of mental illness in sport

Rachel Hickey - December 10, 2019 Steve Seftel played for the Washington Capitals in 1986 before mental health struggles caused him to drop out of the big leagues
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It’s no secret that mental illness is one of the biggest public health issues our communities are facing today. Just like physical illnesses, mental illnesses can take many forms, but they’re often attached to a strong stigma, causing people to suffer in silence.

After being a silent sufferer for almost 35 years, former NHL hockey player Steve Seftel is choosing not to stay quiet. He’s a driving force in the mental health movement, working to slash the stigma by speaking up and self-publishing Shattered Ice, a book about his struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety. His goal: proving you can be a high-functioning person while dealing with mental illness… and that you don’t have to do it alone.

This is his story.

For as long as I can remember, I played hockey. As a kid, we used to skate for hours and hours on the lake at Victoria Park in Kitchener, Ontario. As time went on, dreams of making hockey a career remained at the front of my mind.

Now, to be a successful hockey player, you need to put in a lot of work, be granted a little luck, and deal with a lot of pressure. To put this into perspective, At age 16, I was playing Midget hockey in Kitchener. Two years later at age 18, I was on my way to an NHL training camp. That’s how fast it happens.

There’s nothing wrong with having some butterflies

It was around my teen years that I began to notice things were a little off with me, but I wasn’t sure what to do about it, so I didn’t pay it much attention, let alone tell someone how I was feeling.

In junior hockey, I always felt a lot of anxiety before and after games, but I told myself there’s a healthy amount of stress that goes with the athlete lifestyle. It’s true – there’s nothing wrong with having some butterflies – but if it makes you physically ill, that’s when it’s a real issue. And that’s what happened to me.

After games, I would have to go home because I felt so sick, causing me to miss out on a lot of nights with friends and teammates, but I couldn’t figure out why I was feeling that way

I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what

So, without telling anyone, I went to the doctor that rookie year to talk about these physical symptoms I was experiencing.

The doctor said to me – and I’ll never forget this – he said, “I can’t find anything wrong with you”. That was the moment I figured in my head that I was just different. If there was nothing wrong with me, then this must just be a part of who I am, I have to learn to live with it. I’m a classic case of the stigma, right?

“If it makes you physically ill, that’s when it’s a real issue. And that’s what happened to me.”

– Steve Seftel

And the lack of communication about mental health… I just thought my entire life, this was just character training, this is just who I am, and there’s no way to help or fix it.

To be mentally “weak” simply didn’t work

In the 80s, not only were there no resources for mental health, no one was talking about it. There was no education on how to recognize the signs, or how to reach out for help on your own. It’s true, I did go to the doctor on my own but I didn’t share that with anybody else. I didn’t share with my parents or my coach and say “I’m not feeling right, can we talk?”

Because my whole life I’d been taught hockey players suck it up and soldier on.

“There was this fear that if you came across as mentally weak, you would be perceived as physically weak.”

– Steve Seftel

With this mentality, talking about how you felt just didn’t fit. There was this fear that if you came across as mentally weak, you would be perceived as physically weak, and that just didn’t work out on the rink.

The only place you could even think about it was alone, so I didn’t share this part of me with anyone. Nobody did. That was the biggest barrier. That kind of mentality was normal.

Then I reached my breaking point

So there I was, dealing with – or more realistically, running from – a condition I didn’t understand, and no one knew about it. It got to a point where everything built up to be too much to hold.

Looking back, I see it through an example that my therapist talked with me about. She said, you have all these shelves in your body and you have these glass jars on the outside, representing trials in your life. Each trial or glass jar that I had in my life, I ran away from, packing it away inside me, suppressing my feelings by choosing not to talk about it.

Starting with hockey, I left my professional career [with the Washington Capitals] while still under contract, which is unheard of, but I was spiraling out of control mentally. The easiest thing to do was to run, to escape. After hockey, I enrolled in a nursing program for a few years until I had an incident in the recovery room. I just walked out, spent six hours pacing around the local mall experiencing what I now understand to be a panic attack, and quit the next day.

Things got tough, and I ran.

“The easiest thing to do was to run, to escape.”

– Steve Seftel

This followed me into the workforce, working in a supervisory role, where I eventually came to that breaking point in February of 2018. Eventually, all those glass jars built up and there was nowhere to store them so the only place for them to go was to crash to the floor.

At this point, I was either going to implode by hurting myself, explode by hurting others, or get really sick. At my breaking point, I got really sick.

It wasn’t until February 2018 when I had my mental breakdown, that I actually went to seek professional counselling. I went to my family doctor, got medication, saw a psychotherapist, social worker, psychiatrist and naturopath to get my diet in check. I went from thinking I had a character flaw that I had to deal with on my own, not knowing of anyone else who was dealing with anything like I was, to having more than five resources to help me. 

People need to know they’re not alone

It was a huge turning point for me when my therapist asked me if I know of Michael Landsberg, the TSN sports personality. I said, oh, yeah, of course. She said, I want you to go home and listen to some of his videos. So I did. I looked it up on YouTube.

I was shocked. I had never heard of anyone talk about mental health in that detail, which gave me a feeling of total relief. It was just like, oh my God, other people deal with this, and someone’s talking about this – someone who I actually know.

“I have a voice, and I can be a leader to help others.”

– Steve Seftel

And that is really what inspired me to speak out, get help and begin the process of writing a book to share my story. I have a voice, and I can be a leader to help others.

That’s what I want to do for the people around me, whether it’s my family, who have been incredibly supportive throughout, my coworkers, or the kids I’ve coached minor hockey and lacrosse to for years. The kids can look at me or read my book and say, “Oh, coach is talking about it. So can I.” 

That’s why I share my story

There is help out there. And if you’re not feeling well, mentally, you have to first ask for help and talk to people.

Steve Seftel shares uses his experience in professional hockey to open the conversation about mental health and sports - and keep it going.
Steve Seftel shares uses his experience in professional hockey to open the conversation about mental health and sports – and keep it going.

Once I started to seek that out, that’s when things turned around, and there are more people out there who struggle with similar challenges than you might think. What really shocked me is that this mental health issue doesn’t just affect your brother’s uncle’s second cousin. It touches almost everyone. It’s in your homes, it’s people’s spouses, it’s children.

So, share what you’re feeling. Be proactive. Talk to your family and close friends. You’ll discover that you’re not alone and that you have support. But you need to share so people know you need support.

“I decided I didn’t want to run anymore. I want to be a leader.”

– Steve Seftel

I know how much this helped me, and I decided I didn’t want to run anymore. I want to be a leader who’s saying, it’s okay, and I feel like that too. There are lots of high-functioning people who suffer mental illness, and having a mental health issue does not mean you cannot perform well or be successful. That’s part of the stigma.

Mental illness does not make you weak, it’s a beast that you have to acknowledge, and let others in to support you. That’s the biggest relief. You don’t have to do it alone.

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