“With athletes, we’re kind of depicted as really tough. We do not want to admit that we are struggling in any way because of the stigma. Mental illness is real, and it’s out there,” Malarchuk says in “Headstrong: Mental Health and Sports,” a documentary produced in partnership with Religion of Sports that will air Thursday night on NBC Sports Regional Networks. “Most people think it’s a weakness, [but] you’re not weak. You’re sick!"
Malarchuk, who quickly returned to the ice after his horrific neck injury, said he dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder after the injury, along with an assortment of other problems, including alcohol abuse, depression and OCD. He once nearly died after ingesting a mixture of drugs and alcohol, he said, and attempted to shoot himself in the head in 2008.
“I almost died three times,” he said in a phone interview this week. “You kind of reflect on that, and I use the phrase that I figured God spared me for those still suffering. To be walking around with a bullet in my head is kind of incredible. It makes you reflect on things.”
The first time Malarchuk came close to dying, fans and TV viewers watched in horror as his throat was cut during a Buffalo Sabres game. He grabbed his neck as blood spurted onto the ice. Malarchuk thought he was going to die and told one trainer to call his mother. He didn’t die, of course, and was back on the ice not long after being stitched back together. The wound healed, but the mental devastation was only starting.
“I think it was the next season, and I wasn’t sleeping at all. Wicked flashbacks. And of course, you do that in silence. You don’t tell anybody because of the stigma, which is totally wrong,” he said. “With mental illness or emotional-type illness, it’s perceived as a weakness rather than a sickness. So many people suffer in silence.
“I remember we had a Super Bowl party at [teammate] Pat LaFontaine’s house, and I hadn’t slept in about 10 days. I would just sit on, like, a kitchen chair so I wouldn’t go into a deep sleep because I didn’t want to see that skate come up any more. I was reliving that bad dream or nightmare, and my heart was pounding. I was sweating. I was grabbing my neck. It was basically trauma, undiagnosed.
“It got to the point where I had to get some kind of sleep. I was taking some painkillers because I was playing with a broken thumb, so I came home from the party and — I’m not thinking clearly — I look at the painkillers, and the bottle says, ‘Do not drink with alcohol. Will make you drowsy.’ And I thought, ‘Right on!’ ”
Malarchuk, who played two seasons for the Washington Capitals, estimated that he took four or five pills — “more than I should have, and then I drained a bottle of Scotch. My heart stopped. I woke up in the hospital.”
After the 2008 suicide attempt, “I started to get help, medication and the right doctor,” he says in the documentary. “I’m a suicide survivor. I don’t want to go down that road again. When you wake up and you’ve got a bullet in your head and it’s still there, you’ve got to start thinking about stuff.”
Now 58, Malarchuk, who lives with his wife, Joanie, on a ranch in Gardnerville, Nev., is part of a growing group of athletes detailing their struggles to maintain their mental and emotional health even as they excel in competition. Michael Phelps has used his perch as the most decorated Olympian in history to call on the U.S. Olympic Committee to help athletes struggling with depression, telling NBC, “I guess I was just sick and tired of having it inside of me for 20-plus years.” NBA stars Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan have opened up about their mental health struggles, as have Olympic swimmers Missy Franklin and Allison Schmitt and baseball players Joey Votto and David Freese. Serena Williams has discussed how therapy helped her after an excruciating and controversial U.S. Open loss. Brian Dawkins brought his story to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, telling NBC Philadelphia shortly before his induction of a “real dark, deep depression.” The NFL’s Everson Griffen and Brandon Marshall have also spoken and written about their struggles.
“There’s this idea that high-functioning people are somehow immune from experiencing imperfect emotions,” said Caroline Silby, a D.C.-based sports psychologist who has worked with the U.S. Figure Skating Team. “It’s just not true. You can be anxious and lonely and have everything going right on the field, all at the same time.”
Experts say that just as there are dangers in denying or failing to acknowledge a mental illness, there is power that comes from the knowledge that well-known people are coming forward.
When an athlete acknowledges his or her issues, that “helps take therapy out of the shadows” and “opens doors for compassion,” said Keith Kaufman, a psychologist based in Washington and Virginia with a focus in sports psychology. He said people may empathize with athletes who have said they benefited from therapy. More significant, he said, famous athletes explaining how therapy was helpful can foster self compassion: People recognize and understand common human experiences and then generate kindness toward themselves.
Kaufman, who advises clients to “pause, get off the roller coaster of life and pause, slow down,” said younger athletes seem to be more willing to discuss therapy than those in previous generations. This has created a sort of chain reaction, with more athletes talking about their feelings than ever before.
American tennis star Madison Keys said over the summer that it is “inspiring when a top star like Williams is open and honest about seeking help.”
“Everyone at some point needs a little bit of help,” Keys said. “Part of being in the public eye is people don’t always remember all of the behind the scenes and the rest of your life. We are still people; not just athletes. I think the more open athletes have gotten, the more people have fully understood who we are as people.”
Awareness is not, however, a cure-all. Malarchuk and his wife both say that he still has good and bad days, even as he publicly addresses his challenges. The former goalie is working on his certification in equine therapy, works with disabled veterans and keeps telling his story.
“I’m just trying to be of service,” he said.