WARNING: This story contains sensitive subject matter, including suicide, that could be triggering for some readers.
When Caitlin Brydges (BSc ’12) joined the Warriors varsity hockey team, she knew how to play through illness and injury – she’d been doing it since she was a little girl.
“I’ve had every sprain and strain. I’ve broken bones,” Brydges says. “I always wanted to push through. I always wanted to keep going. Keep going. Keep going.”
But there was one illness – depression – she had kept secret for many years and could no longer push through. “I could put my equipment on, get on the ice and listen to the drills. That was as much as I could force myself to do,” Brydges recalls. “I couldn’t encourage my teammates and build those bonds and I hated myself for that.”
While studying kinesiology and playing hockey at Waterloo between 2007 and 2012, Brydges finally opened up to her coach Shaun Reagan, who is entering his 10th season as head coach of the Warrior women’s hockey program.
“I laid it all out for him: the depression, the meds and how I felt like I was starting to slip ... With Shaun’s encouragement and support, I was able to open up to a couple more people. I went from battling this disease on my own to having several supports that I knew I could turn to at any time.”
The connection that saved her life
That relationship Brydges nurtured with Reagan and his wife Jen would save her life one day in 2013.
Brydges’ depression had gotten so severe that she made a plan to die by suicide and wrote notes to her family and friends. At the same time, Jen had become concerned because Brydges wasn’t responding to her texts. When Brydges finally responded she simply thanked Reagan for everything.
Concerned about the tone of the text, the Reagans began looking for Brydges and eventually called the police, who were able to track down Brydges’ location through her cell phone. The police arrived in time to avert the suicide and Brydges was admitted to hospital.
In the eight years since, Brydges says there have been ups and downs.
She graduated from nursing in 2018 and is working in Makkovik, a remote Indigenous community in Newfoundland and Labrador. She loves working there because, unlike in an acute-care hospital, she can nurture long-term care relationships with people in the community.
“Caitlin puts her heart and soul into everything,” Reagan says, “She was a quiet leader and a heads-up player who would do whatever it took to win.” When Brydges joined the hockey program as an assistant coach, the players were really drawn to her, recalls Reagan. “I learned a lot from Caitlin.”
Giving back to other athletes who are struggling
As a Waterloo alumnus, Brydges helped create three scholarships for varsity women hockey players, one of which is for a player overcoming adversity and another that’s for an “unsung hero” on the team. “I reached out to my fellow teammates,” Brydges says. “There was such a great response from everyone, I decided to connect with people from my class and we had enough donations for three scholarships.”
Brydges is hoping her story will encourage young people to reach out sooner when they are feeling depressed or anxious. “If I had told my other friends, who were awesome people and would have been very supportive, it might have been a very different experience. The downs may not have lasted as long or I wouldn’t have gotten into that cycle of feeling guilty for skipping a friend’s birthday, for example, and feeling worse.”
Reagan, who remains connected to Brydges today, says he is grateful every day for their relationship. “I just can’t imagine life without her,” he says. He’s encouraged by the increasing supports for varsity athletes, including an Athletics Department wellness co-ordinator and the coaching and support staff who are better educated about mental illness.
Reagan encourages athletes to think of their mental health the same way they would think about their physical health. “We’re hoping that if we identify issues earlier it will be easier to treat,” he says. “Young people need to know that it’s okay to talk about it and that these mental health issues can be conquered. The depression is not going to last forever.”
Please talk about it … Have the conversations. They can be difficult and draining and it can be hard to find the right words or feel like you are saying the right thing but please trust me. It will be worth it.
Brydges says: “Please talk about it ... Have the conversations. They can be difficult and draining and it can be hard to find the right words or feel like you are saying the right thing but please trust me. It will be worth it.”
If you are in crisis, feeling unsafe or worried you may hurt yourself, call 911. Anyone across Canada can also reach out for help through the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566 or crisisservicescanada.ca.