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Understanding trauma can turn lives around: former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy

Posted by on January 29, 2015

It takes more than talk to recover from abuse, says Sheldon Kennedy, a former NHL hockey player who is one of the country’s leading advocates for victims of child abuse.

Kennedy, one of Friday’s speakers at a conference at the Royal Ottawa Health Centre about trauma, said it took him a while to understand that speaking publicly about his abuse by hockey coach Graham James would just be the beginning.

“One of the biggest myths out there is that when we tell our stories it is over. I think it is just starting. These scars last a lifetime and it takes a commitment from me if I want to feel good every day.”

Kennedy said he focuses on taking care of himself by eating properly and exercising, and attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings several times a week.

Kennedy, who was recently awarded the Order of Canada, also works to help improve treatment and care of abused children.

He spends a lot of his time volunteering at and working with the Calgary child advocacy centre that, in 2013, was named for him. The philosophy of the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre in Calgary — which involves partnerships among health services, courts, police, social workers and others to better understand and treat abused and neglected children — is one Kennedy would like to see expand nationwide.

There are other child advocacy centres, he said, but the Sheldon Kennedy centre sets a “gold standard” by bringing so many groups together for the benefit of the most severely abused children.

The goal, he said, is to help children before the trauma they have experienced takes a further toll on their lives and their futures.

Kennedy, 45, knows the pattern well.

He was abused by former hockey coach James between the ages of 14 and 19, until about 1990. At the time, he was a junior level hockey player with the Western Hockey League and James was an internationally recognized coach.

Kennedy, who went on to play for the Calgary Flames and the Boston Bruins, turned to drugs and alcohol, spent time in jail, rehabilitation centres and psychiatric hospitals. He considered suicide.

In 1993, he took his complaints about James to the Calgary police. After James was sentenced for abusing Kennedy and another player, Kennedy began speaking publicly about his case and became a well-known advocate for victims of abuse.

The Royal’s Ivy Dunn Nursing Research Day, where Kennedy was to speak, focused on “trauma-informed care” — understanding how trauma affects patients.

Kennedy said he would like to see more children and adults treated before the trauma they experienced sends their lives off the track and leads to substance abuse and other issues.

“We are always trying to treat downstream. I think one of the questions that needs to change is not ‘What’s wrong with you?’ but ‘What happened to you?’”

Kennedy said he likes the use of the word trauma when it comes to treating and understanding mental health issues. “It breaks down the silos and the stigma of sexual abuse or violence.”

And Kennedy said the Calgary centre is based on the mindset that “we have a better chance of turning kids’ lives around early by understanding the abuse they suffered. Trauma-informed care is understanding that whole continuum”

Kennedy, speaking on the same week as that the Bell Let’s Talk campaign aimed at ending stigma about mental health, said things are changing.

When he rollerbladed across Canada in 1997 to raise awareness about the issue, he said, people would drive up to him in between towns, where no one would see them, and tell him their stories of abuse.

People are talking about mental health issues now, he said, but there still is work to do to make sure they are better understood, especially when it comes to treatment.

 Elizabeth Payne, Ottawa Citizen

http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/understanding-trauma-can-turn-lives-around-former-nhler-sheldon-kennedy 

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