In the midst of fighting a battle for his life, Corey Hirsch recalls a thought that crossed his mind.
“I can vividly remember laying in my bed and saying, you know, if I ever get out of this, I’m going to do everything I can to help people and to give them hope,” recounts the former NHL goaltender. “Because back then it would have been the mid-90’s probably, there was no internet, no Google machine. You had to go to a bookstore to find help. And I went to bookstores, and I scoured bookstores and I scoured self-help sections and there was nothing, absolutely nothing that made me feel like it was going to get better, that I wasn’t doomed to a life of mental issues and struggling.”
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Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a former NHL goaltender and goaltending coach. He’s the current colour commentator for sports net and the Vancouver Canucks. He’s a podcast host, a professional speaker, and an advocate for mental wellness. Corey Hirsch is also a father of three and a first time author. His book released in the fall of 2022 is called the safe of my life, my journey out of the dark. Corey hers joins us today from Vancouver. Thank you so much for being here.
Oh, well, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be on your program. It’s just nice to be able to get the word out there on mental health and be able to have you given me a platform to be able to do it. So I appreciate it.
Well, we appreciate you taking the time to talk about a topic that you have been so candid about, in terms of your struggles during your tenure, NHL career with obsessive compulsive disorder, and anxiety at a time when this topic was not discussed. Here we are. Your book has come out at a time when society’s conversation around mouth mental wellness has never been louder. So why did you want to write this book?
Well, I had written an article in the player’s Tribune back four or five years ago, that hit really hard it a lot harder. I did almost 2 million hits in under an hour online published article and it just really showed me that, you know, we’re ready to talk about mental health. The book I felt was necessary because it’s I can, I can educate through the book through the article. You know, it’s just a read, it’s about your story, this is what happened. But writing a book, my goal is to educate people what happened with me what missed with me what we can do better what the system can do better, what you can do for your kids, for your friends, I can’t do that in just a quick article in a book, I can do that. I can tell my story, I can show stories of what happened. I can make examples, I can do a lot of different things. It’s just a lot more in depth of what my story is. And hopefully someone out there reads and go, You know what I struggled to, and I’m gonna go get help.
So take us through that journey. Corey, if you could a little bit. This is about a two year process, as I understand it, in terms of writing this book. Could you describe for us your approach? You said you wanted to to educate people, but what was your approach having to relive a lot of what you went through? As you set out to write this book?
Yeah, no, that’s a great question it. I was okay, until. So the book was written, you rewrite it, you go through it a bunch of different times you try and make it you know, as descriptive as possible. We try to make it the best read possible. And then Shawn Conboy, who wrote my players Tribune article, came on board, and he took the book to another level. And I’ll be honest, after he got the book, and was able, he’s such a talented writer. It’s been really hard for me to read like, and I haven’t actually read it. I’ve read bits and pieces of it. I mean, I know the story, right? I was, I lived it. But the way he was able to take it to that next level, so that people really knew what it was like, I sat there and I’m like, Shawn, like, were you sitting there beside me during all this, like when it was happening when I was younger, because it was so bizarre, he just such a talented writer, that it’s such a great job, that it was almost too real for me. So it’s hard. But you know, for other people, though, it’s not the book isn’t about me, though. The book is about trying to help other people really and and show that you know what this is what OCD This is what mental health is like, there’s so many misconceptions out there about OCD and mental health that, hey, this is my story. I lived it. And I went to someone else’s living there, you can have a great life, too.
On that note, what would you say that you remember from the darkest period, darkest moments in that time that you that you struggled through as a young adult and a successful professional athlete?
Yeah, you know, it’s funny that you asked that because I was just talking to one of the ladies that handles my PR from camera communications. And I said to her yesterday, I said, I can vividly remember laying in my bed and saying, you know, if I ever get out of this, I’m going to do everything I can to help people and to give them hope. Because back then it would have been 90, mid 90s. Probably. There was no internet, no Google machine. You had to go to a bookstore to find help. And you had to and I went to bookstores, and I scoured bookstores and I scoured self help sections and there was nothing, absolutely nothing that made We feel like I was going to become, you know, it was going to get better that I wasn’t doomed to a life of mental issues and struggling. So I promised myself that day that if I did get that one day I would, you know, be able to do something that would let people know, hey, you’re not doomed to a life of a prison being a prisoner in your own mind, it gets better, you can go on to live a fantastic life.
Corey, could you take us through how this journey of yours and your candor around this topic, your desire to educate and help and support people? How has this affected or impacted your role as a dad?
Oh, it’s, it’s impacted it quite a bit I and I’ll be honest, one of my children, I won’t say which one. But when they were 15 years old, came to me and was like, Dad, I’m having some funky thoughts in my brain. I don’t know what they are. I don’t know why they are. And this story is extremely important. Because we always talked about mental health in our home because of what I went through, and I let my kids know you come to me, no matter what, you know, you will figure it out. So that child we took, we took that person to a psychologist, and they were diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, as well, because some genetics had play to here. I have OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder, and I made a suicide attempt, because I was not educated on it. I was not taught about it, I knew nothing about it to the point where I felt there was no way out. My my child will never get to that place. Why? Because we talked about it, because I educated them on it. And we got them help right away. That’s how important it is to educate your children. And how easy it is. And I do have a bit of a chip on my shoulder. Well, why was it a tie? It’s so easy to talk about, it’s so easy to tell somebody, why was it hidden from me, if I’d have known after when I got sick, just to go get help get diagnosed, you know, do this do that I would have never ended up in a suicide attempt. And my child, you know, different story. And we need to do that we’re, we’re doing our children a disservice if we don’t teach them about mental health.
Absolutely. And there are going to be people who listen to this interview and watch this interview. Mothers and fathers families who are struggling with this, they might not know the starting point of where to go, they might think of going to their family doctor first or they might I don’t know, try to research Dr. Google etc. Having lived it yourself, having had the experience of your child, as you describe, what would you suggest makes the most amount of sense as an appropriate first place to go. If you or somebody in your family does have a mental health condition that needs to be addressed?
Now, these are excellent questions, because this is exactly what why I speak well, the first place is to be an open person, for your children, for your for yourself, for your spouse, for whoever it is, be someone that’s going to be non judgmental, and hey, you can talk to me about anything, we’ll get you the help so that someone doesn’t feel like, you know, shame or the embarrassment or the guilt, or they can’t talk to people. So that’s the first step. Second step is probably your family practitioner. A lot of people are scared to go because what if I’m gonna say they’ve heard and seen it all, you cannot surprise them. And then from there, probably get a referral to a psychologist, whatever it is a psychiatrist, maybe some medication. From there, it’s, it’s, you know, it’s no different than and I try to explain it like this. It’s no different than if you’re running track and you tear your ACL, what was the first person you go see, when you go see your family doctor? Where do they they send you to the you know, they they send you to the to the physiotherapist, right. So different than than mental health, you might end up on medication for your torn ACL, you might not, right. Same with mental health, you might end up on medication, you end up going you do the therapy, you go on with your life, right. But we treat them as two separate entities, we treat them as they’re separate. It’s the same thing. It’s the same process. And there’s no need to be afraid to go get help for mental health issues.
And then 1990s When this struggle was part of your daily life, you are already a Stanley Cup winner. You’ve got an Olympic medal around your neck. You had made an NHL team, you were part of the NHL. I mean, you had done a lot at a very young age and battling the secret. Looking back on it now, what could you have done differently to avoid going so far down a road all by yourself?
You know, when I look back now what I could have done differently was ask for help. But back then during those times you just did and and I don’t I don’t think I could have done anything much different than than what I did. I just because I wasn’t educated. You know what you what you can’t you can’t Do something about something that you don’t know. So that’s where the importance of education is. Looking back on all of that, I have to be, it’s still hard for me. But I have to be proud of what I accomplished. I was I mean, I had an extremely severe mental health issue and I made an NHL team. And when I talk now, I say, don’t tell me I was weak. Don’t tell me I am weak. I made the NHL with a with a extreme severe mental health issue. Michael Phelps 23 gold medals suffers from depression, anxiety. He’s weak all of a sudden. So we need to stop seeing people that have mental health issues as weak because they are some of the strongest, most resilient, incredible people I know. And that’s what I talked about. I mean, look at me, right I’ve I’m not bragging or boasting or being arrogant. I want I want to show people that you’re not doomed to a life of failure. I’ve played in the NHL, I’ve played in the Olympics. NHL broadcaster I coached in the NHL, I have a podcast called blindsided with the players Tribune that’s, you know, was nominated for a Webby. It’s all these things, and I have a mental health issue. It will never go away. But don’t tell me I’m weak.
When you when you think about it, Corey, what what helped you get through that? Like, what? What was that thing? I know that you ended up finding somebody to talk to but it does take a certain amount of intestinal fortitude and strength that you probably didn’t know you had to get through that. So what was that for you?
resilience, and that’s where people a lot of times asked me what did hockey do this to like it was hockey. The problem is that too much pressure hockey saved my life. Hockey taught me resilience, hockey taught me that you just keep pushing forward, and you put one foot in front of the other and get to the next day, and you keep going and it gave me friends and it gave me so many life skills. And I’m not sure where I would have been without those life skills, that life skill of resilience. Yeah, there were some really dark days, I’m not gonna lie. But just get to tomorrow. Tomorrow is usually a better day. And from there, you’ll figure it out. You know, just let’s focus on today and getting to tomorrow. And that’s kind of how I got through
it. Youth Mental Health has been described by multiple organizations, individuals, experts, scientists, as a global epidemic.
When you hear from young people today, in all the different things that you do, what strikes you most,
The fact that we still are educating them, we are, but we’re not the fact that it’s not part of our school curriculum. The fact that we still have people, you know, not believing that there’s mental health issues, I’ll see people that, you know, their child can barely get their head off their desk, they’re struggling, they don’t have any friends and the parents are fighting over whether or not to medicate the child. You know, your child has no quality of life. And there’s that’s the other side of there’s a stigma on medication. Oh, we shouldn’t shame people for being on medication. I’m on medication, I’d rather be here alive for my children. And you know, and live a great life than not. And I didn’t ask for OCD. I didn’t ask for mental health issues. So why am I ashamed? Something in my brain doesn’t function properly. What? How is that my fault? It’s no different than someone you know, that has a heart problem. While they gotta get on some medication. I don’t shame them for being on medication for their heart, but for someone’s brain, in their physical pieces of matter, they break what it is, there’s a person out there that doesn’t, you know, have an issue with the brain this great advances coming in plant medicine. You know, there’s outstanding, you know, I don’t push Pharma. But if you need me dication, you need medication, and you should not be afraid to take it and we shouldn’t shame other people for for taking it to
Along the same lines. What are you hearing from parents of kids struggling with mental health issues about what they’re going through trying to manage something that for the most part, most people have no idea about? Aren’t anticipating those things becoming part of their lives. What are you hearing from from parents about their struggles with this?
Yeah, the parents and I echo their their frustration in the sense that the wait times are too long, right? They and they then they don’t know where to go. So one that comes back to educating somebody as to where to go you don’t if you have a say you blow up your knee and plan sports, you don’t go to the shoulder, the heart surgeon get it fixed, right and you go to the knee surgeon, it’s the same thing with mental health. Your child’s got OCD will go to the OCD specialist. Your child suffers from depression go see someone that does, you know is great and depression goes sees that, you know, go there’s different specialized people for different things. It’s no different. The wait times though, are something that aren’t our psychologists or psychiatrists fault. It’s not their fault. They’re overwhelmed themselves. And you know, they’re trying to do that. The best we need to educate our kids and say, hey, you know what, maybe a good path, give them incentives to go become psychiatrists give them incentives to, to come, go and be psychologist because we need more of that. And the school system still isn’t set up to promote careers in psychology or psychiatry or social work. And that’s what we need to do. We need to encourage our kids and give them incentives to go and become that so that maybe we can put a dent in that list.
As you learn more about this, and sort of all of the work that you’re doing around it, and all so the network that you’ve built, that it continues to grow through all of your work. Is there anything else that you think needs to be happening? That is not happening? You talked about teaching about this in schools, you talked about, you know, addressing wait times, but is there anything else that needs to happen to address youth mental health challenges in particular?
I mean, we could go on for hours. The other is to teach, you know, teach our males and even a lot of our females that it’s okay to talk to your buddies that it’s okay to, to have feelings, that it’s okay to, you know, to go see and get psychiatry help, right, I can still fix a car, I can still play hockey, I can still do all these manly things. And I cry, right? doesn’t make me any less of a man. You know, and we need to teach our kids that that that is something that it’s okay. Right? And it’s okay. And I always say this, you know, we’re always the masculine portion of it. Our I think our kids are getting better. But I always say this. And I say if I had taken my life that day, back then, you know, I was taught not to cry, or would any of my teammates come into my funeral and say, Oh, what a man, he sucked it up. You know, what a girl you went out? Like? No, they all would have said the same thing. Why didn’t he talk to me, I would have helped him we would do anything to help it. So, you know, talk to somebody you trust if you need it, and we need to help our kids. We need to educate them. This is we’re beyond. You know this because there’s a kid right there, just like me standing on the edge of a cliff right now contemplating taking his or her life, and they need us. They need us and I need your help. I need your help to help them. You know, every suicide we have, we’ve failed that child and we need to put a dent in those numbers.
Corey, I’m curious, over the course of writing your book, the save of my life? What would you say that you learned about yourself?
What did I learn about myself? Things were darker than I thought they were? You know, no, I think I just I learned more that, you know, it just it solidifies that just because I have a mental health issue. I can still do anything, I can write a book I can do this I can do. It solidifies for me. And it teaches me that mental health does not have to hold you back. It does not mean you’re doomed to a life of failure, or being less than anybody else. And I think it just, you know, reiterated that for me now I have a book out. Right. And the other side of it too is is that there is a lot of kindness and compassion out there and empathy for mental health. And again, just like today, thank you for for having me because I I don’t get to be able to educate and talk about my stuff. If if people such as yourself, don’t reach out and allow me to be on your show. So it goes to full both ways.
Well, we appreciate you taking the time and being again, so open about your story. I want to talk about your your three children who are aged 2422 and 17. You know, I think it’s really striking the story that you shared that your one child came to you when that child was struggling? What do you think made that child feel comfortable to come to his or her father and let them know that this is what was happening? Because that is a stumbling block in many families that sometimes they never can get over till it’s too late.
Well, and that’s that’s exactly it, whether there’s things you have to look out for, for one as a parent, you know, teenagers don’t lock themselves in the room for in their own room for three or four months and never come out. And we think that that’s Oh, they’re just teenagers. know something’s up, right, like stiff, you know, something is going on? Yes, they spend a little more time in there. Yes, they sleep a little bit more. But if they’re not coming out ever, something’s going on. You got to watch the circle of friends they’re hanging out with right kids will they’ll seek out like children. You know how they’re dressing. You know, put your phone down. When you talk to your kids, you know, and I’m not saying I’m great at it, I got you to put your phone down. They just want your attention and use the term I always say this when you talk to your kids say tell me don’t say how are you doing? Say? Tell me what’s going on in math. Tell me what’s happening with Joe tell me what’s happening in this situation. You know, use the term tell me because then they have to kind of give you more than one word answer. If you say How are you, they go Good, fine. And they go mosey on their way. If you say, tell me what you did today, then they have to tell you, right? They can’t Good, good, fine. So it’s all in your approach how you talk to them, and just sit down and let them know, like, hey, something’s going on in your brain, I am not going to judge you, I’m gonna get you the help you need. And we’re gonna go and we’re gonna, we’re gonna fix whatever problems you have.
It’s such an important point that you just made there with the language that you use when you’re talking to your kids, tell me versus how this or how that I wish I had known that a few years back because it takes a while to learn, and you’re gonna stumble and fall and you finally get to a place where you’re like, I should have been doing that as a, but it’s never too late to change. So I think that’s a really important point that you made. It, Cory, when you when you think back on your role as a dad, first of all, how would you describe in general, your parenting style?
Yeah, that oh, that’s a tough one here, because I’m gonna have to lie a little bit here. No, you know what? I have my own mental health issues, right? So my parenting style is that I have to let my kids my kids know that sometimes I still struggle. It’s not about them. I don’t love them less or anything, but I have my own battle. So that’s first and foremost. The second is that they can come to me with anything. I’ve told them any, anything short of murder, I think we’re good. You can come to me. So. But no, I’m an open door policy and an open book and I make mistakes. I make lots of mistakes as a parent. But the open and honest communication is the biggest thing. When I show vulnerability to my children, parents think that they can’t ever show vulnerability to their children, because what would they know you need to show that vulnerability, your kids need to see you cry, they need to see you struggle and get through it. Right. That’s how they’re going to learn because you’re an example for them. And they need to see your vulnerability so that they can share theirs if they need to. I think that’s the greatest gift you can give your kids is to let them know that you’re human too.
Well, and it’s so interesting, you bring up that point, because is that something that you prioritized as a dad early on, that is to say, having these healthy conversations with your children? Because the fact is, is so much of parenting is learning on the fly. Right? So how did you decide to prioritize? Having those those healthy conversations and it has to start at a young age presumably?
Oh, no question. And I don’t I got I made so many mistakes and age, age brings wisdom, right? It does. So I’ve had to learn a lot of things. And you know, I think with your kids and you do learn on the fly, you really do. And I didn’t do everything right. There’s lots of things I could go I wish I would have spent more time with them. You know, that’s my my biggest downfalls. I didn’t spend enough time with my children. But when we did talk, they were open and honest communication. You know, it was It wasn’t anybody trying to hide anything, I think secrets are toxic, I think secrets cause mental health issues. You know, and here’s the other thing that I talked about, and it’s not so much about your children, but I’ll say this, and it’s about your spouse, I’m divorced, I mean, and my marriage crumbled, and part of its 5050 Whatever. That’s, that’s for next week’s show. But I’ll see people struggling with mental health and struggling in their situation with their spouse, and they don’t talk to each other. You know, and especially men, because you’re taught while you I don’t talk to my mind, the females, I don’t talk to that talk to, you know, go I’m gonna go in my cave and suffer in silence, right? Because that’s what men do. Your your spouse is your best friend, right? They do anything for you, or they should. And listen, you need to communicate, because I’ll tell you what, divorce hurts a hell of a lot more than talking to your partner about your problems. And that’s, that’s the you aren’t good kids. That’s the first place to start. Now, let’s make sure that your relationship is strong. And your kids show and you show your kids. You know, what an open communication is with a partner in a marriage.
One of the things that you brought up a little earlier, was the whole idea of social media not having existed when you were going through this, the internet not really being anything as we know it today. Social media, you’ve got one teenager. I wonder what that looks like in your house. Because particularly during the pandemic, I’m sure there’s many people who would agree. Social media has just been I don’t even know what to call it in terms of the negativity and the toxicity on it. So what is your approach in terms of how your your youngest in this example, uses social media?
Well, the way and I’ve learned the hard way myself because I’m in media, and I’m in sport, and so I’ve had to learn the hard way myself on a few things in social media. One is The one is you can use social media for a weapon, or you can use it for good. There’s lots of good that comes out of social media. But there’s people that choose to use it as a weapon. So that’s up to you. And I would rather use it for good. And if you are using it for a weapon, shame on you, you need to stop. The second is to not have any emotion tied to social media. So if you’re going to tweet something or say something, it’s not out of anger, it’s not out of hate. It’s not out of, you know, sadness or anything like that. Take your emotion out of anything. You tweet. Anything, you anything, you talk about that, because that’s usually where you get Trump. The other is, is it’s up to the parents to monitor their their social media. I mean, between the statistically in the US between 2007 and 2017, ages 10 to 24 year olds, suicide went up 56%. Wow. I mean, where’s social media in that? Where’s the internet in that? Right, right in that wheelhouse. And I’m sure, if you looked at Canada, the numbers probably aren’t much different. So my point being with that is, is that social media is something that you need your kids password, you need to know what it is you need to you need to be on their account, you need to be following them. They need to be following you, you know, you need to be right. That’s, it’s the same as years ago, you know, when you had to watch your kids at school, and who they were hanging out with when there was no internet and all that, you need to know, you need to know who they’re what they’re doing on social media. And, like I said, two choices. You teach them use it as a weapon or for good, and I’d rather use it for good.
Absolutely. Corey, what do you want readers of your book to take away from it?
Ultimately, that you can go through absolute hell in your life. And it gets better that, you know, you could be going through the worst of times, just get it tomorrow. Don’t worry about six months from now, a year from now. Just get to tomorrow, and that you’re not doomed to a life of misery. You can go out and do incredible things that there is help. There is hope there’s treatments available, but you got to be willing to go get it do the work.
Wonderful advice. Corey Hirsch, author of the safe of my life, my journey out of the dark, also a sports net color commentator for the Vancouver Canucks. Speaker as well. Thank you so much for your time and your candor today.
Like I said, Thank you without you. You know, I don’t get the platform. So I appreciate it just as much as you do.
More than 20 years later, Hirsch has stayed true to his word.
And as of mid-October 2022, his own story will sit on bookstore shelves. Hirsch makes his debut as an author in: The Save of My Life: My Journey Out of the Dark.
“It’s been really hard for me to read, and I haven’t actually read it,” Hirsch told Lianne Castelino during an interview for Where Parents Talk. “I’ve read bits and pieces of it. I mean, I know the story, right. I lived it,” says the 50-year-old from his home in Vancouver.
Hirsch reached the pinnacle of his professional career back in the mid-1990’s.
Barely into his early 20’s, he had a Stanley Cup ring, an Olympic silver medal and was living out his NHL dream as a goaltender.
He was functioning as a professional athlete at the highest levels of his sport, while quietly being consumed by a debilitating secret.
“I have OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder, and I made a suicide attempt, because I was not educated on it,” Hirsch recalls.
“When I look back now on what I could have done differently — was ask for help,” says Hirsch who is a father of three and current colour commentator for Vancouver Canucks broadcasts on Sportsnet.
His mental health battle also affected his role as a father.
“My parenting style is that I have to let my kids know that sometimes I still struggle,” he says. “It’s not about them. I don’t love them less or anything, but I have my own battle.”
During his interview with Where Parents Talk, Corey Hirsch also discusses:
- What helped him through his mental health challenge
- Advice for other parents and families to consider
- Other support measures to help those with mental health challenges
- Key takeaways from his book
- What he learned about himself
- The role hockey played during the best and worst time in his life