Aiden Small

 

Aiden has been playing hockey since he was a small child but he didn’t pick up a whistle the fall of 2012, at the age of fourteen. Initially, it was an opportunity to get more ice time while still playing competitive hockey but officiating quickly took over. It became clear that he had a lot more to offer working the bluelines than he did on the right wing. After only two years of officiating, Aiden got the call to work the lines in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League. He is still playing with Juan de Fuca Minor Hockey’s Juvenile “A” team but he has known for a while where his future lies. After less than a year in the VIJHL, Aiden got the call to officiate in the BC Hockey League and has been there ever since. He is currently serving in the Canadian Forces reserves with the goal of going into the military full-time once he’s finished his degree.

 

Through his teenage years, Aiden never viewed mental health as something he needed to worry about. But in 2016, his world was turned upside down when his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Aiden was away from home attending school and had difficulty processing the news that his mother only had a couple of years to live. Shortly after getting the news, Aiden moved home to be with his family and continue his studies but he couldn’t shake this feeling of despair. He admits that it still comes and goes but initially it hit him like a ton of bricks. Like most people who experience depression for the first time, Aiden denied that anything was wrong. But his mental state was deteriorating as the months dragged on.

 

“I tried to tell myself that depression and mental health was something that wouldn’t happen to me”

 

While he was initially processing the news of his mother’s diagnosis, Aiden was able to talk with his girlfriend about how he was feeling. But when he moved back to Victoria, the relationship ended and that outlet was lost. Fortunately, Aiden’s brother, Keegan, saw that he was struggling and stepped in. One night, about five months after the news had broke, Keegan and Aiden took a drive. That night, Keegan gently brought up the fact that he noticed Aiden was struggling with his mental health. He couldn’t miss the fact that Aiden hadn’t been himself since moving back home. Keegan suggested that maybe Aiden was experiencing depression and that he should talk to someone. Aiden had been fighting to ignore the warning signs for months but as soon as his brother mentioned it, Aiden knew that he was right.

 

“This is how anyone would feel… it’s normal to be sad all the time”

 

Even after that conversation, getting help was still an extended process. Aiden knew that his brother was right but there was another voice in his head. The voice was saying “this is normal… your mom is sick, you’re supposed to feel sad.” Even though Aiden knew what was happening, he couldn’t help but view mental health issues as weaknesses. He didn’t want to admit that he was weak.

 

During this time, Aiden was still working actively in the VIJHL and BCHL. He could focus on the game when he was on the ice but outside of those few hours, his depression took over. More than anything, it affected enjoyment of the game. He wasn’t excited to go to the rink, to warm up, or to hang out with the guys after the game. The best he could do was focus while physically on the ice and then immediately retreat once the game was over.

 

“[The guys] were always checking in on me and I didn’t always tell them the truth [laughs] but they helped me feel ok about being more open with them”

 

The officiating community on Vancouver Island is a tight-knit group. So everyone knew that Aiden’s mom was sick. When the news broke, Aiden was flooded with messages from officials checking in on him and his family. But that didn’t make it any easier to share how he was truly feeling. But even though Aiden knew that he could’ve reached out, he just didn’t feel able to disclose that “weakness” to anyone else. It still felt too raw and it remained a secret for a long time. Aiden lied a lot about being okay when friends and colleagues would check up on him; even when he felt at his worst. Since getting help and improving, Aiden has felt more able to share his story. When he first talked about his struggles with some of his close officiating friends, they were uniformly supportive and that has continued to this day.

 

“Instead of just asking ‘how are you doing?’ let’s also ask, ‘how is your mental health?’”

 

There was still a period of weeks between the night Keegan and Aiden finally spoke openly about his depression and when Aiden began seeing a counsellor. When it finally happened, Aiden admits that it was uncomfortable at first. It took him a while to get settled and feel okay speaking openly and honestly about how he was feeling. But once Aiden got to know his counsellor, his mental health started to improve dramatically. Having said that, there have still been ups and downs. Aiden didn’t talk to anyone while he was away with the military over the summer and noticed his depression worsening when he returned home for the start of the school year. Immediately, Aiden started seeing a counsellor again before he felt any worse. Rather than view this latest depressive episode as a setback, Aiden views it as a victory. He was able to recognize the symptoms and get in to talk to someone before his depression began to affect the other aspects of his life.  

 

In the time that Aiden was keeping his depression a secret from even his closest friends, his biggest fear was being judged or labeled as “weak”. For him, the antidote to isolation is for the officiating community to do our collective best to be open and erase that stigma. He views himself as someone who has the potential to lead that charge and make mental health a topic that we can talk about. In the same way that officials casually ask about their recent games or run-ins with coaches, we can “also ask ‘how is your mental health?... instead of just asking ‘how are you doing?’”. Because if the goal is to make it easier for officials to talk about their mental health, then the first step is purposefully opening the dialogue.

 

On-Side Mental Health is proud to publish and share Aiden’s story in the hope that it will encourage other officials to speak out and find support when they experience challenges with their mental health.