Joel Byron‚Äč

 

Joel has always been more aware of his own mental health than most people. He started playing hockey at the relatively late age of nine, and started officiating at the age of twelve. Joel was a goaltender and, shortly after he began officiating, he quit playing hockey to focus on officiating full-time. Not long after he stopped playing, he was selected to officiate the PeeWee Tier 1 Championship in Abbotsford. Recently, he officiated the Richmond International Bantam/Midget tournament and was selected for a final. Joel continues to officiate in Abbotsford and is a part of the one of the top minor officiating development programs in the province.

 

“It sounds weird to say that I learned about mental health in elementary school… but that definitely helped me” 

 

Joel had his first introduction to the concept of mental health earlier than most. At the age of seven, a family friend committed suicide, which led his parents to educate Joel on mental health and what could happen when someone was suffering from mental injury or illness. Later that year, a friend of Joel’s died while they were playing together. This led to Joel developing attachment issues and withdrawing from people. Because his parents had helped educate him about mental health, Joel was able to recognize his own symptoms and approached his parents, asking for help. This allowed him to get help and get his mental health back to normal.

 

“Because of what my parents taught me, I was able to say when I needed help, even as a kid.”

 

The issue recurred several years when Joel was having trouble with being bullied at school. He responded in a very similar way: by withdrawing and isolating himself. He would pretend to be sick to avoid going to school. When he did go to school, he was leaving as soon as possible and going home to be by himself. At the rink, this made him more easily triggered. He was quick to anger with players and coaches and people were taking notice. Shawn McCaskill was the first person to ask him if everything was okay. This helped Joel realize that this was an issue.

 

“I was really lucky to have parents who educated me about mental health but most didn’t… so you were either normal or ‘weird’ or ‘crazy’…”

 

After that, Joel saw a therapist once a week for a few months, gradually decreasing his appointments as he began to feel better. However, he still sees someone from time-to-time to talk about issues that might come up and weigh on his mental health. This was never a secret from his family, including his brother with whom he is quite close. But Joel wasn’t open about it with friends or peers, primarily because of his age. The fact that he was still in high school made the stigma around mental health that much stronger. Even though he knew there must be other students going through similar issues, he didn’t want to be the only person who admitted it.

 

“We tend to think of a locker room as an unforgiving place but the guys [in Abbotsford] were always super supportive, which made it easy.”

 

Joel also didn’t want to disclose his mental health struggles because he didn’t want other people to feel like it was their problem. Like many people who have struggled with their mental health, he didn’t want to be treated any differently. But at the time, there weren’t many role models for people who were addressing their mental health while also living a ‘normal’ life. But in an officiating context, Joel found it very easy to be open with people because of how they approached him. When his parents separated last year, his colleagues were quick to offer him a place to stay for a few nights or a chance to chat about what was happening. The support group around the officiating community has been very special for Joel.

 

For Joel, the solution to stigma around mental health is to build relationships that will allow for dialogue to occur. Joel felt supported by the officiating community because he had strong, pre-existing relationships with his colleagues. If those relationships didn’t exist, he would not have felt comfortable talking with those people. Now in a leadership position with Abbotsford Minor Hockey, Joel is in a position to encourage younger officials to have conversations by creating that supportive environment. He hopes to start with common challenges in officiating, such as pressure to perform and abuse from coaches, and expand that to speak more widely about mental health and emotional well-being.

 

On-Side Mental Health is proud to publish and share Joel’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.