Feb. is Canada’s unofficial Mental Illness Awareness Month and popular sports icons across the country are leading the charge to increase an open dialogue.

Two major awareness campaigns take place this month, Bell’s Let’s Talk Day and the National Hockey League’s month-long Hockey Talks movement. The goal of each is to remove the stigma associated with mental illness to create an open dialogue for those suffering.

The main spokesperson of Let’s Talk is six-time Olympic medalist Clara Hughes, an iconic Canadian athlete who unknowingly suffered from depression for years during her career. In going public with her story, Hughes hopes to inform others needing help.

Michael Landsberg, host of TSN’s Off The Record sports talk show, aired his documentary Darkness and Hope: Depression, Sports and Me last week. The film shares his struggle with depression, along with former Montréal Canadien Stephane Richer, retired New York Yankee Darryl Strawberry, and Clara Hughes.

In addition, all seven Canadian NHL clubs are participating in Hockey Talks month, which provides in-stadium mental illness information during home games and raises money towards research programs.

Following the suicide of former Vancouver Canuck fan-favourite Rick Rypien, members of the Canucks organization have been instrumental in the creation and promotion of the mental health information website, <Mindcheck.ca>.

In the past year, over 54 thousand people used the website’s self-assessment to guage symtoms and whether they should seek help. The site had 130 thousand new visitors in that time span.

Canucks defensemen Kevin Bieksa, whom Rypien confided in about his illness, actively promotes the website and has become an ambassador for changing misconceptions about mental illness.

In a recent television interview, Bieksa wondered why professional athletes will readily take an MRI exam even for a suspected injury, but not seek treatment for mental illness. He wants to remove the stigma that depression, anxiety, and disorders are a weakness, rather than the illness it is.

With the help of corporate sponsors, the sports world is raising awareness for mental illness at a level beyond all other efforts. The recent tragedies of Rypien, retired NHLer Wade Belak, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, and others have sparked an unprecedented conversation on the public stage.

For more information on mental illness or to take a self assessment test, visit <www.mindcheck.ca>.