Saskatchewan Huskies’ Yol Piok uses own experience to spur mental health conversation

The University of Saskatchewan Huskies football team isn’t playing any games this year, but judging by the smiles on players’ faces, being together for practice is a lot more fun than not playing football at all.

After spending six months apart due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Huskies aren’t taking their time together for granted — and no player has a greater appreciation for his extended football family than receiver Yol Piok.

“It’s almost like I practiced for (the pandemic) without understanding what was about to happen,” he said.

Piok has always had a love for football but there was a time in his life when that love stood in stark contrast to a host of much darker feelings.

In his second season with the Huskies in 2016, Piok looked poised to break out as one of the team’s brightest stars.

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But away from the field, he was increasingly consumed with anxiety, something he’d been battling since his final year of high school.

“I got to the point where it was just super overwhelming. I started getting super depressed and thinking, ‘okay, well if this is how life’s gonna be, I don’t wanna be here,’ so boom, that’s where I decided to attempt suicide,” he said.

The pressures of being a student-athlete and some poor financial decisions combined with being separated from his family in Regina had Piok in a dark place and led to him trying to take his own life by consuming a cocktail of pills and liquor.

As he lay in bed waiting for the end, Piok began thinking about his family and friends and the pain his death would bring them. Then he did something that may have saved his life: he picked up the phone.

“I called one of my boys, David, and we start talking, we start really talking, not just putting up the walls and kind of saying whatever we can just to pass the time, and as soon as we started doing that and just speaking freely it changed my entire life,” he said.

Read more: Saskatchewan Huskies football, soccer seasons cancelled due to coronavirus pandemic

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After being taken to the hospital by that same friend, Piok began having more conversations, first with a counsellor and eventually with other friends and members of his family.

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“It was more or less this realization that my problems are still there but me wanting to get better is worth more than that and I realized that getting better was through talking and honestly just opening up,” he said.

That realization as well as the subsequent conversations with those closest to him have helped Piok move forward with a renewed enthusiasm for life and football, and deepened his relationship with his family.

“Obviously your family, it’s going to be the tighest bond ever but after it all happened I realized that these vulnerabilities I was so scared of and didn’t want to share with them, was honestly what made our relationship so much stronger in the end,” he said.

In the years since his suicide attempt, Piok has become a vocal advocate for mental health, sharing his story as an ambassador for Movember, an organization dedicated to men’s mental health issues.

Now in his fifth year with the Huskies after taking a break from school in 2017 to focus on his mental health, Piok wants to help others find their voice. Being on a team that lost two former players to suicide this past summer has only added more fuel to his fire.

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“I could have been that story. And now whenever our teammates talk, it’s just honest truth with each other because we realize it hurts to see one of your homeboys pass away at such an early age,” he said.

Read more: University of Calgary launches ongoing survey to study COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on youth

Huskies head coach Scott Flory believes football players are growing increasingly comfortable opening up to their teammates.

“I think that our guys recognize and they realize it’s not a secret, it’s not a shame, it’s nothing to hide and just being able to talk and break down some of those macho barrier walls or a lot of that stigma around it,” he said.

And he credits Piok with helping to push the conversation forward.

“We love Yol and we love what he brings to us. I think what he’s brought to us and this team is far greater than we’ve ever given back to him.”

While Piok’s time as a Huskie is limited, his mental health advocacy is only just beginning.

“Somebody may go through this and if it isn’t somebody my age there’s another generation that’s going to come up so whether it’s football, soccer, nursing, whatever it may be — work, family — mental health is something that touches all facets of life so it’s something that I’ll be able to carry on for a long time,” he said.

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It’s a journey that continues one conversation at a time.

“It wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t share my experiences and let other people know that it is okay. You do get into some dark times and there are people there to help you and that once you do get out, life is honestly better than before.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

For a directory of support services in your area, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Learn more about how to help someone in crisis here.

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