March 31, 2024

Rob Vanstone: Win With Wellness — how a Rider helped a struggling writer

The other day, as part of the Saskatchewan Roughrider Foundation’s Win With Wellness mental-health initiative, receiver Mitch Picton met with students in Grades 4, 5, 6, 7 and, well, 54.

Yeah, it has been 42 years since I was in Grade 12, but I have felt even older in recent weeks.

March of 2024 has been the most tension-filled month of my 60-year existence. My wife, Chryssoula, and I absolutely adore our dog, Candy, who has been dealing with a very serious medical condition — a fungal infection that nearly took her life just two weeks ago.

Our all-world is feeling quite a bit better now. So am I, especially after eavesdropping on a Win With Wellness presentation last week at Thomson Community School.

For the better part of an hour, Picton talked to the students about mental health. I began taking notes for the purposes of a story, only to realize that the benefits would extend far beyond the production of a community-based article for Riderville.com.

My own mental-health battle can be traced back to when I was the same age as the wide-eyed youngsters to whom Picton was introduced on Thursday.

Back in the 1970s, nobody ever talked about mental health in a scholastic setting — or, to the best of my recollection, anywhere else.

Picton noted that the awareness of mental wellness has also been elevated considerably since he was a student, and he is only 28.

How, I wondered, would life have evolved if a Roughriders player — always a hero and role model, in my eyes — had walked into my classroom and talked candidly about mental health?

Then it hit me: It’s never too late.

In fact, the timing of Wednesday’s session could not have been more fortuitous or beneficial.

It just so happened that the visits of Picton and fellow Roughriders receiver Brayden Lenius to Thomson Community School on Wednesday worked nicely into my schedule.

(Translation: We had vet appointments on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday!)

“Mental wellness is something the team puts a large emphasis on for players,” Picton told the students, “and we try to project that to the kids in the schools.”

Similar sessions are held with students throughout Saskatchewan as part of the Win With Wellness Player Presentation Series, which is funded by donations to the Roughrider Foundation. (To make a contribution, or for more information, visit The Foundation Website

“Mental wellness is the same as physical wellness,” Picton said, before noting a distinct difference.

If you sprain an ankle, you seldom think twice about visiting a doctor or receiving treatment.

But if your mind is hurting, to the point where the navigation of a day is excruciating, it isn’t as easy for some people to seek treatment or even the counsel of a friend or loved one.

Trust me on that one. I began taking anti-depressants in 2010 and didn’t tell my wife or best friend about it for more than a decade. In fact, I hid the pills — quite effectively, I should add — so that Chryssoula wouldn’t find them.

Looking back on the issues that had troubled me, they seem trivial or unimportant. But try telling that to me when I was in a state of stress or anxiety.

What is the difference? I was never really sure — until Picton spelled it for the students and one grizzled writer on Wednesday.

Picton showed a slide on which stress was defined as “a physiological response to an external threat — real or imagined.”

Anxiety is “an emotional response to events or things that are either not dangerous, or much less harmful than the person perceives, characterized by feelings of tension and anxiety.”

I am much more prone to anxiety. Typically, I will invent a negative thought, allow it to circulate in my mind, and eventually convince myself that the worst-case outcome is an inevitability.

Once I reach that state, the pain extends beyond the emotional and exacts a physical toll.

My chest tightens. My teeth clench. My heart rate accelerates. Discomfort in my shoulders radiates down my arms in the form of shooting pains.

Through it all, there is a knot in my stomach that tends to devour my appetite, until I go in the other direction and stress-eat — not a good idea when you are a Type 2 diabetic.

Lately, though, anxiety has not been the primary issue. It has been stress, as I fully realized on Wednesday while listening to Picton’s presentation.

There is an “external threat” — to the very existence of my dear dog — and it is “real” as opposed to “imagined.”

Stress, as Picton noted, can also be beneficial. If you are stressed about an upcoming test or game, for example, the nervous reaction can motivate you to study or prepare more effectively and diligently.

But stress can also turn on you with a vengeance.

“Everybody is going to deal with stress,” Picton told the students. “Nobody is exempt from it.”

Some people deal with it openly. In many cases, the struggle is entirely internal.

“Two weeks ago, I met a girl (during a Win With Wellness presentation) who told me that when she’s stressed and anxious, she’s the only person in the world who feels that way,” Picton said.

I felt that way, for years, and it exacerbated the problem.

Once I opened up about mental health, I made two discoveries: (1) It is so beneficial to confide in people, because they want to help you; and, (2) More people than I ever imagined are dealing with mental health issues.

I was shocked by how often I confided in someone who responded by telling me that they, too, have confronted stress, anxiety and/or depression … that they have sought and received counselling … that they felt much better once a mental health issue wasn’t an internal inferno.

“We can’t see the battles people are facing unless they reach out,” Picton said while emphasizing the importance of being respectful, kind and non-judgmental.

Thankfully, there are more tools than ever for dealing with mental health issues. Picton, for example, described a “playbook for managing stress.”

  • Just breathe.
  • Think forward.
  • Use humour.

With respect to (1), box breathing is a useful tool. I hadn’t heard of it until a few weeks ago, when I met with a clinical psychologist, the brilliant Dr. Tom Robinson.

Inhale for four seconds. Hold your breath for four seconds. Exhale for four seconds. Hold your breath, again, for four seconds.

Repeat as many times as necessary until you are in a calmer state.

That’s box breathing. It works!

Thinking forward, in the words of Picton, “helps us understand that there are brighter days ahead and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

As for humour, he added, “laughter can be the best medicine.”

Sometimes, though, a calming mechanism comes entirely out of the blue.

Earlier this week, I knew I would be writing about Win With Wellness — but not in this fashion, from a first-person perspective.

Mitch Picton was the first person I thanked, near the entrance to Thomson Community School, when the session was over.

Then I walked to the car, drove home, and was greeted at the door by the happiest hound and her wagging tail.