Former junior hockey player, coach talks about struggle with depression

Lynn Curwin
Published on August 25, 2016

St. Anthony native TJ Smith is very open about his struggle with depression and wants to help others with mental health issues. He will be taking part in a carnival fundraiser for the CMHA on Aug. 27.

©Lynn Curwin

TRURO, N.S. – One of the toughest challenges T.J. Smith ever faced was talking to his parents about his suicidal thoughts and then watching tears run down their faces.

“My parents had come over from Newfoundland because they knew something was wrong,” he said. “They encouraged me to get help. I was in such a dark spot by then, I barely remember my visit to the hospital.”

Most would never have suspected Smith was struggling with depression. He was a high-scoring forward with the Truro Junior A Bearcats hockey team for three years before going on to NCAA Division 1 hockey. He returned to Truro as assistant coach for the Bearcats from 2007-2009 and moved up to head coach and GM of the Yarmouth Mariners last winter. That’s when suicidal thoughts began to overwhelm him.

“I can’t pinpoint the time depression started -  probably in my late teens,” said Smith, now 30. “Feelings of worthlessness became more common and I had trouble sleeping. I went on to use alcohol on weekends to silence the demons but I never used drugs.

"Hockey was an escape for me, but there were problems inside. I would grab my mask and put it on to go out the door. I was putting on an act.”

He thought he could hide his depression until it went away. But the bad days became bad weeks and then bad months. Things became more difficult. He was gambling as a way to escape from his feelings and thoughts.

After breaking down and talking to assistant coaches and his parents, he went to hospital in January and was officially diagnosed with major depression. He was admitted to a psychiatric unit. After three weeks he was released but a month later he returned for a few days. In April he felt the need to go back in for a couple of nights.

“Since I’ve been diagnosed I’ve been doing a lot of reading and writing a blog,” he said. “I did it to clear the air at first but strangers have reached out to me and I feel I’m helping people. I want to motivate others to seek help.

“Coaching hockey is big for me but I’d like to work in mental health, too. I’m interested in peer support and would like to talk at high schools.”

He quit drinking, takes medication and ECT treatments, talks to his parents every day and spends time with his four-year-old son, who lives in Halifax. He and the child’s mother are still friends and she remains supportive.

“I’m working out a few times a week and being more mindful, trying not to rush through things,” he said.

Although he has made a lot of progress his struggle continues. He also wants to help others with their struggles.

“I don’t hold back when I talk about my mental health because that would play into the stigma,” he added. “I want people to know it’s not a bad thing to seek help. Mental illness is like any other illness you need help for.”


In a July blog post TJ Smith wrote of grabbing his head and holding it as if he can pry the thoughts from his brain.

“I want to close my eyes. But I can’t. That’s where the darkness lies. When I shut them, the thoughts are horrifying. I see more with them closed, than I do when they are opened.”

– TJ Smith, blog post from July


CMHA-Bearcats Family Carnival fundraiser

You can meet the Bearcats and enjoy a family carnival in Victoria Park on Saturday. From 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Truro Bearcat players, along with TJ Smith, will be at the bandstand for games, photos, autographs and a barbecue. There will be opportunities to "score on a Bearcat" and "pie a Bearcat" during the day. All funds raised will go toward the CMHA Friendship Club.


1st Prize: Truro Bearcats autographed jersey.

2nd Prize: Season pass to Bearcats games.

3rd Prize: RECC duffle bag

Draw date is Sept. 2. Tickets are $2 each or 3 for $5 and can be purchased at the CMHA or Bearcats office. Drop in to CMHA; Bearcats office; or inbox for tickets.