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Ben Scrivens’ Goalie Mask Raises Schizophrenia Awareness

Many people lack understanding of the mental illness that is schizophrenia. When most people think of schizophrenia, they think of split personalities – which is something completely different. Those who are familiar with the illness know that it is characterized by “positive symptoms” such as hallucinations and delusions, “negative symptoms” such as avolition, depression, apathy, and tiredness, and “cognitive symptoms” such as memory problems, inability to focus, and disorganized thinking.

Although schizophrenia only affects approximately 1% of the population, those who suffer with it tend to have a difficult time coping with the symptoms and often face unwarranted societal stigma. In the world of sports, efforts to raise awareness for mental illness are often nonexistent. Most prominent individuals, athletes, and organizations such as the NFL and NBA care most about what’s popular and/or trendy – such as breast cancer and ALS (i.e. ice bucket challenge).

While all of these conditions deserve attention, debilitating conditions like schizophrenia have never gotten any sort of mainstream attention – especially in the world of professional sports… But that is all about to change thanks to Ben Scrivens, goaltender for the Edmonton Oilers NHL team. He hopes to raise awareness for mental illnesses – specifically schizophrenia, arguably the most disabling mental illness.

Ben Scrivens’ Mask Helps Raise Schizophrenia Awareness

On October 20th, Ben Scrivens decided to wear a mask with a message. His newest mask was designed by a man with schizophrenia named Richard Boulet. The mask looked great and featured a message in the form of words: “team work,” “empathy” and “hope.” These words represent what individuals with schizophrenia need in their lives. Individuals with this illness need some social support (“team work”), “empathy” (people should understand their condition), and “hope” (that they can live a decent life and potentially find a good treatment).

Scrivens said, “The messages Richard was trying to convey are specific to how he viewed his recovery.” He continued by saying, “But that said, empathy goes a long way in all walks of life, whether it’s family or friends, on Twitter or dealing with people who are sick, people who are old, people who are young. Empathy is what sets us apart from other animals.” Not only does the mask “accentuate how talented these artists are,” Scrivens said, but it can be used “for a good cause at the same time.”

Many people with schizophrenia turn to expressing their emotions and perceptions in the form of art. Scrivens knew this and thought that presenting the idea of artists with schizophrenia designing a goalie mask would be perfect. Ben Scrivens originally parntered with the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta (SSA) to create a program called “Ben’s Netminders” which allows Edmonton artists diagnosed with schizophrenia to design a mask to be worn by Scrivens in a game.

The mask worn by Scrivens on October 20th was just one of four total masks that he will wear throughout the 2014-2015 NHL season designed by someone with schizophrenia. Scrivens and the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta decided that wearing a mask would be a great way to get people talking and get extra attention. After each game, the mask will be auctioned off for charity to help raise funds for the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta (SSA). Designer of the mask Richard Boulet said, “I think society at large gets its information on mental illness through popular culture.” He continued by saying, “Mental illness isn’t presented as something that is just a brain disease that can be diagnosed.”

Why Ben Scrivens’ actions are significant…

The action taken by Ben Scrivens is of significance for a number of reasons including: it is on a goalie mask, goalies tend to never alter their masks, mental illness isn’t generally talked about in sports, and schizophrenia is generally stigmatized by society.

  • Goalie mask – Those who watch hockey usually take notice of goalie masks – they usually reveal a little bit of the goalie’s personality and have an artistic design. Although not everyone will understand the message of the mask by just looking at it, most people will be inclined to search for it on the internet and look up the meaning behind it. Additionally, many reporters and news outlets will give him extra attention and ask him about it because it is for such a good cause.
  • Goalie’s are superstitious – It should be noted that many goalies are highly superstitious about the equipment that they use, including their helmets. Ben Scrivens is willing to overlook any potential superstition and focus on doing what he thinks will help make the world a better place. The fact that Scrivens is using his mask to help raise awareness for mental health is awesome, the man deserves a standing ovation. Not only did the mask look good, but he was victorious in his first game with it against the Tampa Bay Lightning with a score line of 3 to 2.
  • Few athletes raise awareness for mental illnesses – Since mental illness is seldom mentioned in sports, this should be considered a breakthrough. It should be hoped that more people come out and support similar causes in the future. Despite the fact that there are people in the world who are high-functioning with forms of mental illness, many are not and have a difficult time coping with their diagnoses. In some cases, if left untreated a person with a mental illness may feel hopeless and may feel as if suicide is their only option.
  • Schizophrenia is misunderstood / stigmatized – Many are also ignorant enough to believe that people with mental illnesses like schizophrenia are “weird,” “weak,” or caused it themselves. Like any disease, there are significant genetic causes of schizophrenia and people who develop it tend to have no control over it. Many sponsors are thought to feel uncomfortable backing a cause viewed by the public as “weak.” For this reason, many athletes will not disclose their mental illness until they’ve retired – they don’t need any extra stigma.
  • Poor treatment options exist – For schizophrenia, there aren’t really any great treatment options. Most drugs that treat the condition are classified as “antipsychotics” and while they act as antagonists of the D2 dopamine receptor to reduce symptoms of the disease, they carry an array of unwanted side effects. Additionally, these drugs aren’t targeting the direct cause and are akin to using a bomb to kill an ant; they may help, but they are not specifically targeting the problem.

Ben Scrivens’ wants to give people with schizophrenia hope…

It should be mentioned that not only did Ben Scrivens get to meet the designer of the mask, Richard Boulet, but he gave him a complete tour of the Oilers’ locker room during the team’s morning practice skate. Richard Boulet also got tickets to the game in which his mask was worn as well as pictures with autographs of Scrivens. Scrivens believes that in his position as goalie for the Oilers, he is obligated to give back to society.

The fact that he is using his equipment to raise awareness for a condition that seldom gets public attention should be applauded. Scrivens not only wants to help those with schizophrenia by making them realize that it is possible to recover and live a productive life, but he wants outsiders to understand that it’s a brain disease / genetic disorder that needs more research. There is limited research of this disease in terms of finding the causes of schizophrenia and progress is slow.

Recently in 2014 it was found that schizophrenia is actually 8 distinct diseases based on genetic expression. There are currently 5 types of schizophrenia that can be diagnosed by a mental health professional, but the treatment for all of these is the same: an antipsychotic medication. The medications used to treat this disease help, but are far from perfect – leading those with the disease to gain a significant amount of weight and ultimately lose brain volume over time.

Scrivens was quoted as saying: “You go to the doctor and take an X-ray of your arm and they can see your arm is broken and have a remedy to fix it, but with mental illness it is not as cut and dry as that. Two people can have the same diagnosis but it’s in a completely different system and treatment might not work in the same way. It’s a field that needs more discovery, more work and a lot more awareness around it.”

Kudos to Ben Scrivens…

Being a fan of all sports, including hockey, I vaguely knew who Ben Scrivens was, but upon hearing what he’s doing this year has made me gain a significant amount of respect for him and has made me cheer for his success. How can you not like a guy who is an advocate for mental health and is trying to give people hope that have been diagnosed with schizophrenia? Many celebrities and athletes alike lack understanding of various diseases like schizophrenia and fail to realize the toll that they take on a person’s life.

Semi-related: I know Brandon Marshall wore green shoes a year ago for mental health awareness month, but was actually fined by the NFL because this particular cause was not part of their specific agenda. Breast cancer awareness is part of their agenda, yet if an athlete wants to promote a different cause, he is fined for it. People that aren’t directly affected by mental illness such as if they or a family member has it fail to realize how debilitating it can be.

By a significant portion of society, mental illness is labeled as more of a personal problem rather than a disease of the brain caused by complex genetic factors and in some cases, environmental triggers. In the future it is hoped that more athletes and organizations will join existing efforts to raise awareness for mental illnesses like schizophrenia and promote mental health. Some speculate that if more star athletes helped support mental health awareness, society would start to understand illnesses like major depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia as being just as, if not more severe than physical conditions like cancer.

Scrivens stated:

“Pro sports can be a good barometer for society as a whole to see how we deal with and accept and treat people in different situations than what we are going through.” He continued with: “People tend to view athletes as not being real people. They are dehumanized in some senses. They are impervious to pain and they don’t have the same problems that ‘normal’ people do. But when something hits home and you see someone you watch on TV going through something that’s troubling and you as a person can resonate with that, it kind of puts it into perspective that these problems don’t look at race and they don’t look at gender and they don’t look at all these other discrepancies. They affect everybody equally. Whether you are hockey player or a fan, mental illness will affect you or someone you know.”

He wanted to make it clear that people suffering from mental illnesses are often “everyday people” and stated that “they’re just like you and me.” Mental illnesses can affect anyone, but unfortunately not everyone with them feels comfortable to talk about what they’re dealing with. Scrivens mentioned, “You never really know what people are going through and you might think they’re dealing well, but we have to make our society a comfortable place where people can really talk about the help they need.”

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