Of all the people on a hockey team to have anxiety, the last one you would expect would be the goalie. They have to be so cool and collected, have nerves of steel, and always be at the top of their game. Right?
In today’s episode, Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Corey Hirsch talks about his battle with anxiety, OCD, and thoughts of suicide — and his efforts to keep it secret from those around him.
Corey Hirsch is a former National Hockey League Stanley Cup Champion. Having struggled with severe anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder during his hockey career, Hirsch has become an outspoken advocate for mental health education, destigmatizing mental illness, and encouraging those to get help who need it. Hirsch’s 2017 article in The Players’ Tribune, “Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark,” is still one of the most widely searched and read articles in the platform’s history, leading to the launch of his mental health podcast, Blindsided, and the publishing of his book “The Save of My Life.”
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome, everyone. I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and calling in to the show today. We have Corey Hirsch. Corey is a former goalie in the NHL where he won a Stanley Cup. Having struggled with severe anxiety and OCD, Corey has become an outspoken advocate for mental health education. He is the host of the podcast Blindsided, and his new book, The Save of My Life, is out now. Corey, welcome to the show.
Corey Hirsch: Well, thank you. Thanks for having me and looking forward to this. And I, look, fellow redhead. All good, right? We’ve got to stick together.
Gabe Howard: I always love having redheads on the show. We got to represent.
Corey Hirsch: Got to stick together.
Gabe Howard: We got to stick together. You know, Corey, I am a hockey fan, sincerely, but my team is the Columbus Blue Jackets. We’ve never won a Stanley Cup, But I remain hopeful. And I’m only mentioning this because if you ask me who the least likely player on the ice to have anxiety and OCD, I’d say it would have to be the goalie because of how calm you would have to be to dive in front of hard pieces of rubber flying at you at 80 miles an hour. Are people surprised to learn of your struggles with anxiety?
Corey Hirsch: You know, it goes one of two ways. Some people want to blame hockey. They look at me and they go, Oh, hockey must have done this to you. Goaltending has so much pressure to it. And I tell them, you know what, Hockey saved me. Hockey is a great game. Whether it’s soccer, whether it’s football, whether it’s any sport. They taught me the skills, resilience, how to battle through adversity, how to keep going. And in tough times, like all those skills that I learned in the game, really kept me alive. I’ll be honest. So, I do want to make clear that no, hockey did not do this to me. I was probably predisposed to all of this. But as far as the stresses and the pressures, like you said you would expect, the goalie having to be the calm, clear one. Well, that’s what put me in hiding for three years, right. Because that was the stigma. Who would want a goalie with mental health issues, who could trust the goalie? But what I’ve, and I’ll say this right off the top of our interview, I made the NHL with a very extreme mental illness happening to me. That’s like having two hands tied behind your back while everyone else is playing with, you know, full everything. So, I always said, don’t tell me I’m weak or Michael Phelps is weak or anybody else that struggles with mental health issues where some of the strongest people you’ll ever meet.
Gabe Howard: One of the things that you said there that really, really intrigued me because this is really the heart of the discrimination and stigma against people with mental illness is you said, who would want a goalie with mental health issues, who would want a goalie with an anxiety disorder? There was a part of me that when you said it was, well, yeah, I mean, who would want a goalie that way? And I was like, Oh, oh, I did it. I stigmatized you and myself. How do you avoid that knee jerk reaction? Because there’s this little part of me that’s like, Yeah, who wants an anxious goalie? You need a calm goalie. That’s the sports fan in me. But the mental health advocate in me is like, Wow, Gabe. Wow, wow. I can’t believe you just said that to Corey.
Corey Hirsch: And that’s. No, but that’s the general consensus. But who wants to who wants a goalie or a quarterback with a shoulder injury? Who wants to go their quarterback with me? It’s the same thing. But you can rehab that knee. I guarantee you Tom Brady has multiple, multiple injuries. Everyone still trusts him. Right. But all of a sudden, it has to do with our brain and it’s like, oh, we don’t want that. And that’s and that’s okay that I’ve thought that, too, because when we look at the brain, it’s the fear of the unknown. But it’s no different than a physical injury. It really isn’t. And thank you for saying that, because I think that’s the general consensus. But how we’re going to change that is we’re going to change that by educating people. You talked about how Tom Brady had all of these injuries. We don’t have to guess. We know. And the reason we know is because he told us and the reason he told us is because he wanted help. And the reason that he wanted help is because he knew it would work and he could get back to playing. Now, in mental health, you said that you kept your mouth shut for three years, right? You didn’t tell anybody. So does that mean that that for the three years that. Well, how long were you in the NHL? Three years?
Corey Hirsch: Yeah, I was in and out for probably 10. So.
Gabe Howard: So, for ten years you had a mental health issue, you had a crisis, you had you were suffering and you didn’t want to tell anybody. Which leads me to believe that means you didn’t get help for the problem is, is that accurate?
Corey Hirsch: I did. Finally, after I was pretty much brought down to my knees trying to play in the NHL, I lost 30 pounds. Right. So, people could start to see and start to notice. I just tried to hide it and figure maybe I’d figure it out one day and then nobody would know. Right? And if I figure it out, and then I’ll be good and nobody will know. But mental health, it’s the same as it seems. You can’t walk around life with a broken leg for three years and go, oh, nothing’s happening here. Everybody just look the other way, right? It’s. But it’s the same for your brain. You, you, you have to get it fixed, right, like you have. It’s a physical piece of our bodies. But I tried to not because of the stigma, and I didn’t want anybody to know. The good news is, is that today this is early nineties, right? Today we’re much better place, but we still have that stigma. But back then, yeah, man, I wasn’t telling anybody. And there was other people that struggled to write and professional sports. It’s competitive. Like, let’s be honest, there’s a lot of money on the line. So that’s another reason why you don’t, you know, you’ll, you’ll take the player that had shoulder surgery in the off season and not worry about them. But heaven forbid if I told someone in the off season I had obsessive compulsive disorder, I probably would have tried to trade me or move me or. Right. Like because of the unknown. But here’s the thing that you said this to, and I said this Mental health doesn’t discriminate, man. It doesn’t care if you’re a lawyer, a doctor or construction worker.
Corey Hirsch: If you’re working at the sanitation plant, whatever. Right. Or a professional athlete, it does not care. It doesn’t just because you’re on an NFL Super Bowl team doesn’t mean that that all those players are immune from mental health know. In fact, a lot of them are probably struggling. You know Tom Brady, we bring him up, going through divorce, went through divorce. How painful was that? I mean this is Tom Brady, right? Like that’s mental health. Incidents happen in our lives, right? They’re going to happen. Things are going to happen. People are going to pass. Tough stuff is going to happen. It all comes back to mental health after that, right? You can’t change the incident. I can’t I can’t change some of the things that happen in my life. But what I can do after that is take care of my mental health, because that’s what it becomes. Yet we’ve stigmatized people so that if it does become mental health, all of a sudden, we look at them differently. You know, you’re and that needs to change. And thankfully, again, through shows like yours and things we’re doing, I’m blindsided with the Players Tribune and that hopefully we can create that because it’s all about education. Hey, it’s not that scary, right?
Gabe Howard: We know that if you seek help for an issue and you get medical intervention, you get the treatment that you need, your end result is better. Now, when you were in the MNL and you weren’t getting that help because you weren’t able to ask anybody for it. In my mind, that means it compromised your plane. Now you won a Stanley Cup, so somebody listen in and be like, well, it couldn’t have compromised him that much. He won the Stanley Cup. It couldn’t have compromised him that much. He made an NHL team. It couldn’t have compromised him that much. He was an elite athlete. And that goes back to your you know, don’t say that mentally ill people are weak. You have to accomplish this all with two hands tied behind your back. But I want to ask you, Corey, I mean sincerely, how did you do it? If I found out that you want a Stanley Cup with a broken leg, I would be like, how? How did you play through a broken leg? And I’m asking you, how did you play through every mental thing that was happening to you if you weren’t able to seek help?
Corey Hirsch: I was not well. But that’s where I say sport, that’s how you need to put your kids in sports. You need to put that I don’t care if it’s sports, art activities. Your children need to be in activities because you learn to work as a team. And those skills taught me, like I said, resilience, how to work through things, how to handle things. I didn’t know what was going on, but the game taught me all those things so that I could keep moving forward and have that strength. But here’s the thing. And I get these calls and I get these calls from kids today and parents and that kids don’t want to go on medication and all that. And I don’t blame them. Right. There’s lots of I don’t push pharma. There’s lots of things. A lot. We have a long way to go because they’re worried that it’ll affect their game or they don’t want to get help for their mental health because they’re worried that it’ll affect their on-ice play. Well, I’ll tell you what, I couldn’t train properly, I didn’t sleep properly, I didn’t eat properly. Once I got help, I was way better player than even before I could train properly.
Corey Hirsch: I could sleep properly, I ate properly. I was functioning within the team. Right. I could we would be in team meetings. I could actually listen and be part of the team meeting instead of my head being somewhere else. Like all those things. But it’s the fear of the unknown. But get the help like your life will be so much better. We all think that you’re going to go into a therapist office and it’s going to be some sort of voodoo. And you’ll come out and you’ll be you’ll be a completely different person. No. Here’s the thing. If you’re out there listening, you’ve never been to therapy. Here’s what it is. I go into a door, it’s somebody’s office. I sit in a chair; they’ve probably got candies on the table. I have a coffee; I eat all their candies. We have a chat, right? And they help me draw, come to answers for myself. They don’t push me into being somebody I’m not or say I need to do this or that or that. They give me ideas so that my life, I can live my life better. Right? And they have the knowledge of what is going on in my brain that I can’t see. They give me the knowledge I need so that I can be healthy and better. There’s nothing scary behind a therapist are right. It’s not it’s not a room full of ninjas. Right? Right. Just go. It’s a coffee talk, right? That’s what it is. And they have the information, so there’s nothing to be scared of.
Gabe Howard: It’s utterly fascinating the number of people who don’t want to get help with their emotional help, their mental health, even a mental illness or any sort of thing that comes to their personality, because they feel that then they didn’t do it. It’s fascinating how people see that. I think of my father. My father, if he had to unload a truck and somebody came over and said, Hey, do you need help unloading that truck, he would immediately say, Yes, absolutely. Are you kidding? Now it’s going to take half the time. This is great. The heavy stuff. I get help or he be excited. But if he was having an emotional issue, a mental health issue, if he was grieving the loss of his father, grieving the loss of his children, leaving home, whatever it was, and somebody was like, hey, you want to help Kerry in that, he would immediately say, No, no, I have to handle that. I’m a man. I’m tough. And this this competitive gear would kick in to him. Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you are competitive. I think you almost have to be to be an elite athlete. Does that analogy resonate with you, this idea that you would accept help with the physical task of unloading a truck, but you wouldn’t accept help with the emotional thing that’s happening in your life?
Corey Hirsch: That’s bang on. And I may, being a man, I may not help ask for help for both. I got it. I got it. Nobody. But here’s the thing, right? There’s a bit of a war on masculinity right now. And some of it I agree with, some of it I don’t. But nowhere in the dictionary does it say under the word masculinity or man does it say has to suffer in silence. Right. Like that’s not part of the definition. So why do we feel that we make it part of the definition? And I say this I say this in my talks and I say this everywhere. Look, if while I was playing, I ended up taking my life because I did make a suicide attempt, if I ended up taking my life, do you think my teammates would have come to my funeral and they would have said, Yeah, I would have. Matty sucked it up. He didn’t tell anybody. He didn’t talk to anybody. He just went out like a man. No, they all would have said the same thing. Why didn’t he talk to me? We would have helped him, right? And we could have got him the help we need. Yet as a man, we think we need to suffer in silence. Well, you know, or if you don’t want to show your emotions, that’s fine. That’s up to you. If you don’t, you know, whatever. I can still shoot a gun. If that’s what it means to be a man to you. I can still play sports. I can still chop whatever. Right? Whatever. But nowhere in the dictionary or in the masculinity, whatever world does it say has to suffer in silence.
Corey Hirsch: So, I don’t understand why we do that, right? Like, why? Why do we feel that way? And so, go get the help you need. Just because you’re a man doesn’t mean that you have to suffer. I don’t know where that came into the into the definition of being a man.
Gabe Howard: Corey, one of the things that you said there is if something happened when it when a when a player dies by suicide, the rest of the team gets together and says, why didn’t they reach out for help? We would have helped them. However, Simone Biles did reach out for help. She said, Look, I’m at the Olympics, I can’t do it. I’m having a mental health issue. She did the right thing, right? She asked for help. And of course, the country turned on her. She’s wasting her opportunity. She’s not representing us. As a professional athlete, how do you feel about this?
Corey Hirsch: People think just because you’re a professional athlete or you make a lot of money, that you shouldn’t be immune from it. Right? Oh, what are you worried about? You have $10 million in your bank account. Well, the $10 Million, my bank account means nothing if I’m ready to take my own life. I had an Olympic medal. Silver medal was with the Rangers, with the Cup, drank out of the Stanley Cup. Two weeks after the Stanley Cup, I made an attempt in my own life. Right. Because none of those matters. It’s all material. So, you see Simone Biles and it’s like, okay, well, she had it all in the world. She didn’t. She was struggling. It doesn’t. None of that stuff matters, but it disgusts me what I saw some of the shows, it disgusted me because but I say this to her, like those people that are saying those things. They’re not your people. I’m your people, right? Like, I will. I get it. I get it. And if you’ve never had a severe mental health issue, maybe it’s hard to understand. I can’t I can I can empathize with someone that has cancer, but I knock on wood, I’ve never experienced it. Right. But to lose that empathy is just it’s sad to me. That was really sad to me because I couldn’t be more proud of her.
Corey Hirsch: But people think that, you know, they lose the humanity portion of it. They see you as somebody that has a lot of money. What are your problems? I couldn’t get groceries, you know, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional athlete or whatever. I told you it doesn’t discriminate. And shame on those people for doing that. Because what if it was their child and their son or daughter or whatever? Right. And she had she did it in front of hundreds of millions of people. Do you know how brave that is to say, I’m going to step aside because I can’t get this done and I want the betterment for the team. I want somebody else to take my place. That’s actually a sacrifice of somebody that’s asking for help. And she did the right thing. And I hope she’s doing well. I don’t know. But yeah, that’s the stigma and then just shames people into not getting help. Why would you do that to somebody? And I look at her as one of the most brave people I’ve ever. I haven’t met her, but as one of the most brave people that’s ever played, played a sport or been in gymnastics or whatever, and good for her.
Sponsor Message: Hey everyone, my name is Rachel Star Withers and I live with schizophrenia. I’m also the host of Inside Schizophrenia, a podcast that dives deep into all things schizophrenia. Featuring personal experiences and experts to help you better understand and navigate schizophrenia, Inside Schizophrenia is a Psych Central and Healthline Media podcast and we are available right now on your favorite podcast player. Check us out!
Gabe Howard: And we’re back with former NHL goalie and author of the new book “The Save of My Life,” Corey Hirsch.Corey, I want to ask. I know for me, living with bipolar disorder, you’re right about that stigma. And sometimes I lay awake at night and I think, look, the only reason people know that I live with bipolar disorder now is because I tell them it’s because of my big mouth. If I kept my mouth shut, I’d be a boring, middle-aged guy who went to the grocery store, lived in a neighborhood, had a wife, had a dog, nobody would ever know. And therefore, I could avoid that stigma. And I ask myself sometimes, why am I putting myself through this now? My answer, of course, greater good and everything that you can probably imagine. But I have to imagine, Corey, that you could just be well known as an NHL goalie who won a Stanley Cup. Why did you choose to be so vocal and add on NHL goalie who won a Stanley Cup, who has anxiety and mental health issues? Because as you said, there’s a stigma and discrimination to it? What made you decide?
Corey Hirsch: Yeah, well, I’ll tell you what. You know, one is that I do have a bit of a chip on my shoulder. I’ll be honest, because why was I not educated on this stuff in high school? Why was I not educated in school? So, I’m 21 when things just kind of break. Right. Like if I’d have known what that was or something or there wasn’t a stigma, I would have gone to get help the next day. Go to my dog. Something’s going on right in my head. Go to the doctor. Doctor refers you to. To psychiatrists. Get on some medications. Start healing your brain. Right. Instead, I suffer for three years and almost kill myself. Right. So why was that information withheld from me in high school? Middle school? Why? Why? Why? So, I guarantee you, we’ve had suicides that because they didn’t know. Right? They didn’t know how to get help. They didn’t know what was going on. And there’s a kid out there right now, I guarantee you, stand on the edge of a cliff contemplating ending his or her own life. We need to put an end to that. We need to stop that. We need to help our children. We need to help them every suicide. We fail the child as a society. Between 2007 and 2017, suicides went up 56% between the ages of ten and 24. Well, shame on us. Right? Give them the information. I have a child who has obsessive-compulsive disorder and I’ll share the example. I’ll do the correlation here. We always talked about mental health in my house and some of it’s genetic. We always talked about it. We said, hey, if something funky is going on in your brain, come see me.
Corey Hirsch: No question, don’t worry about it. It’s all good. Like, you know what happened to me. My child came to me and says, hey, dad, something funky is going on in my brain. Well, we took them to the psychiatrist, diagnosed with OCD. And now that person is going to be a teacher. Still battles with OCD, but never got to that place that I got to, where I’m standing there wanting to die. Right? And they never will. My child will never get there because I educated them, because it was an open conversation. So, when you open up and have that mental health in your home, you might be saving your own child’s life, right? So why are we withholding that information from people? Right. Why are we making them feel even worse? Talking about suicide does not create more suicide. It’s been statistically proven that talking about it actually saves people and helps people. So, what are we doing? Why is it such a taboo word? We’re like, don’t talk about it. Might give them the idea. Well, I guarantee you. Guess what? If they’re already thinking about it, you’re not giving them the you’re actually making them feel better. And when we stigmatize people for feeling suicidal, it actually just pushes them under even further. Right. Makes them feel there’s a shame and guilt and all that attached to it. We need to start talking about this stuff, educating our children. I don’t care if it’s bipolar, schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, OCD, give them the information. It will save lives.
Gabe Howard: You are 100% right. It’s fascinating to me that this myth is able to persist if somebody is feeling suicidal, if somebody wants to end their own lives, they feel alone, they feel meaningless, pointless, dark. I know how I felt. There’s just there’s just so much research that these people, people like myself, people like you, we feel abandoned. And then nobody wants to talk to us because they, quote, don’t want to give us the idea, unquote. Well, you recognize that that just plays into the diseases hand. We feel that nobody wants to talk to us and then no one does. What interrupts that is when somebody walks up to you and says, Do you want to kill yourself? Suddenly you’re like, Hey, people are asking questions. People can see me, people, people can feel maybe what I feel. All of the sudden. It sort of breaks the pattern. But I’m fascinated that people think that ignoring someone who is suffering, that’s the key to helping them. It just doesn’t make any sense.
Corey Hirsch: So, Doctor Diane McIntosh is my co-host on our show and she taught me this was is that when you use the term tell me rather than how are you doing? Hey, how are you doing? Well, everyone goes good and I give you the canned answer, but talk to your kids. Go tell me who your friends are. Tell me what math class is like. Tell me, Tell me this. Tell me. Use the term. Tell me. It turns the conversation right. And with your kids, and especially with your kids, just let them know that you can talk to me about anything. That’s all I did. Right. But also, by sharing my own vulnerability with my children allowed them to feel like I was a safe place to talk to as well. Right. So, if you’re a mom that has anxiety or depression, you know, talk to your kids, say, you know, I feel anxious sometimes. You know, I do. And if you ever do, hey, you know, you can talk to me, right, and give examples. And that’s how we change the conversation, right? That’s how we change the conversation by educating people and letting people know, hey, there’s help out there, right? I got your back. You need me. I’m here.
Gabe Howard: One of the things that I always recommend is if you’re having trouble talking to your partner, but you want them to get through, recommend a podcast. Now I’m always going to recommend that they listen to Inside Mental Health. And I imagine, Corey, you’re always going to recommend that they listen to Blindsided. Now people are listening to my show now, so explaining what it is would just be, well, stupid. But they’re not listening to Blindsided right now. What’s the genesis of that show? What’s the point? What can they expect and what’s your favorite part of it? Why did you create the show the way that you did?
Corey Hirsch: Well, it goes back to the same thing as everything else. People see professional athletes as the toughest of the tough. They’re not supposed to have problems. They’re not supposed to be bipolar. They’re not supposed to. Well, the reason that I wanted to do it this way was and with Diana and Diana and I put the show together and so that you could get both sides of it, professional athlete side. And then I don’t have that clinical information. Right. So, she’s got the clinical side. I have the relatable human side. But the part that makes it resonate is that because it’s professional athletes, people look up to them, right? You have kids that will look up to them and that by them being open and sharing their vulnerability, just like we just talked about, encourages other people. If Bubba Watson can go get help if ever seen if you had Darius Miles, if they can get help. Wow. I guess I can, too. Right? So, we’re breaking down barriers using professional athletes and letting them tell their story in their own words. And it’s also so that when people look up professional athletes, there’s kids out there that watch them every day and they want to be professional athletes. And these people have gone to get help and their lives have gotten better. It allows people to say, hey, that person went got help, I can get help to. And that’s really the premise of the show.
Gabe Howard: Corey, thank you so much for being here. Obviously, your podcast Blindsided, is available on your favorite podcast player. Your book is available on Amazon and wherever fine books are sold. Where can folks find you online? What’s your website?
Corey Hirsch: You have my website it’s CoreyHirsch.com. You can find me @CoreyHirsch72 on Instagram. I try to stay off Twitter but yeah, my book, “Save of My Life,” is on Amazon and just thank you for having me and being able to talk about mental health. It just feels so freeing, doesn’t it? It’s just such a great thing. And I’ll say this. It’s like the chains come off. When you’re hiding, and you’re keeping secrets, it’s toxic, right?
Gabe Howard: 100%.
Corey Hirsch: And when you go get help, the chains come off and it’s just it’s the greatest gift in the world. And thank you for having me on your show. This is such a great show. I’ve enjoyed this. And let’s do it again, man.
Gabe Howard: Absolutely. Corey, of course, sincerely, thank you so much for being here. And I want to thank all of my listeners as well. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations.” I’m also an award-winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. My book is on Amazon because, well, everything is on Amazon, but you can get a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me over at gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free. And hey, do me a favor. Tell your friends, family, colleagues all about this show. Referring the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
Announcer: You’ve been listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast from Healthline Media. Have a topic or guest suggestion? E-mail us at email@example.com. Previous episodes can be found at psychcentral.com/show or on your favorite podcast player. Thank you for listening.