The phrase is simple — just three words.

It’s nearly seven years old now, but the importance of Bell Let’s Talk hasn’t dwindled since it was created by a Canadian organization dedicated to erasing the stigma surrounding mental illness. The organization (which shares the same name as the phrase) also seeks to help Canadians with mental illnesses receive better care and access, encourages change by adopting a standard for mental health in the workplace and raises money for research.

Each year on Jan. 25, Bell Let’s Talk promises to donate five cents for every tweet — in addition to other forms of social media or communication — that includes the phrase in a hashtag.

The campaign has been unofficially adopted by the hockey community, and that has held true for the Michigan hockey team.

In past years, most of the Wolverines’ participation lay in individual tweets with the hashtag from both current and former players. This year, though, a few Canadian members of the team made a collective effort to help raise awareness.

In a picture that the team’s official account tweeted, senior defenseman Nolan De Jong, junior forward Dexter Dancs and freshman goaltender Jack LaFontaine held cards with messages written on them such as “You are not alone”, “A conversation could change a life”, and “It’s okay to ask for help”.

“The hockey community is such a tight-knit group that if somebody’s suffering from that or takes their life — god forbid they do that — it affects a lot of people,” De Jong said. “So I think there’s always guys that want to step up and make a difference because there are so many people suffering in silence that are maybe scared to come out and talk about it or are trying to battle through it because of the stigma that surrounds mental health right now. I think it’s something that’s getting better, but there’s still a long way to go with it.”

Some Michigan players, like senior goaltender Zach Nagelvoort, discovered the initiative through the organization’s social media campaign. De Jong, on the other hand, learned about it while following the NHL.

He had grown up familiar with the career of Rick Rypien, a forward for the Vancouver Canucks who earned a reputation as a hard-working player and enforcer. Rypien suffered from depression for most of his career before committing suicide in 2011. His death shook the hockey world and spurred further involvement in mental health causes — such as Bell Let’s Talk — from both players and teams. In the aftermath of Rypien’s death, two of his former teammates, Kevin Bieksa and Alex Burrows, worked to promote mental health awareness — efforts that De Jong became aware of.

“… That’s something that I saw a lot of it and something that I think touched a lot of people in British Columbia especially, because Rick Rypien was such a well-liked, heart-and-soul team guy,” De Jong said. “… (Rypien’s suicide) didn’t hurt just the team and the hockey community, but everybody in British Columbia, and that left a lasting effect for me, especially.”

Added Nagelvoort: “We see these people as immortal. We see them as like, ‘Oh, tough guy who plays in the NHL, there’s no way anything else could be going on.’ I think that really humanizes it — to see someone like that, who plays at the highest level that there is in our sport, that we all idolize, to see that that person was affected by a mental health issue. … If it happens to one of those guys that we hold so high, then it probably is happening to someone who you’ve played with or play with right now.”

The drive to increase awareness of mental health issues is something both De Jong and Nagelvoort are familiar with, and it doesn’t just stop with Bell Let’s Talk. Both players are cognizant of the strides that Michigan has taken to expand its resources, such as its Counseling and Psychological Services program.  

While he hopes his teammates would be comfortable talking to him about any issues weighing on them, Nagelvoort anticipates that his teammates would use those resources if necessary.

He said himself that the stigma surrounding mental illness too often results in silence about the issue.  

“I can’t speak for everyone else but I grew up in the ‘Put your head down, just work harder, if you put more hours in on the ice, you’ll get through your problems’ (mentality),” Nagelvoort said. “There’s a lot of people who go through life and that’s not the only answer.”

Added De Jong: “… It’s definitely a positive to see so many student-athletes or professional athletes taking a stand and showing that, you know, we may have to put on this face and go out there, but there’s other things in our lives that affect us rather than just making sure I perform on the ice.”


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