St. Michael’s duo of Divis, McKenzie advocating mental health awareness through Hope Happens Here

By Tom Layberger

Photo courtesy of St. Michael’s College Athletic Communications.

“You are not alone.”

It is a simple message, yet one that is the core of what Danny Divis and Justin McKenzie have set out to accomplish since the start of the 2015-16 academic year.

Danny Divis and Justin McKenzie visit schools and other avenues to make mental health awareness a priority in the local community (photo: St. Michael’s College Athletic Communications).

As the St. Michael’s seniors and Hockey Humanitarian Award nominees were driving home after visiting friends in Boston in the summer of 2015, they found themselves in a bumper-to-bumper snarl. It was then that McKenzie started talking about the loss of a friend from high school, Timothy Hamlett.

Hamlett was a member of the University of Pennsylvania’s track team and earlier that summer it was learned he had taken his life. He was first reported as missing several months earlier.

The conversation evolved into the desire to do something pertaining to mental health and the need, difficult as it may be, for people to speak up when things are not going well. The result of their effort was Hope Happens Here, a campaign that promotes mental health awareness.

At first, McKenzie and Divis, both members of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee at St. Mike’s, spread the word through other athletic programs at the Colchester, Vt., campus. Athletic director Chris Kenny and several other department and faculty members immediately embraced the campaign. Building awareness through sports proved to be a successful initial step.

“We thought going through SAAC would be in our best interests and our first event was a volleyball game,” said McKenzie, who also lost a relative to suicide in 2009. “It was like having a mental health awareness night through the team. We created educational documents and we did simple fund raising. It was all about getting the word out more.”

Divis and McKenzie (photo: St. Michael’s College Athletic Communications).

That volleyball game in the fall of 2015 served as a launching pad for HHH, which soon became a familiar acronym throughout campus.

Last February, McKenzie and Divis expanded their reach by speaking at Enosburg High School in Enosburg Falls, about 40 northeast of St. Mike’s. McKenzie also spoke at the University of Vermont’s annual SAAC meeting and made a presentation to the Northeast-10 Conference.

The visit to the high school, in which McKenzie and Divis had the entire student body and faculty as an audience, was particularly rewarding.

“It was an incredible experience going up there and talking to those kids and having 30 or 40 of them come up to us afterwards to tell us how we changed their lives in some way,” recalled Divis. “They told us how much it meant to them and that they were going to seek help. That was pretty incredible. It was one of the most fulfilling days of my life.”

Divis, a native of Media, Pa., experienced what he said were “random bouts” of depression and anxiety during his high school years at Cardinal O’Hara in Springfield, Pa., and then the The Gunnery, a private prep school in Connecticut with a century-old hockey tradition. He said his situation, for which he was diagnosed and treated with medication, was likely due to “teenage angst.”

Divis readies a one-timer in a recent game for St. Michael’s (photo: James Buck).

“I don’t know how severe it was, but I remember the feeling and it was pretty awful,” he said. “So any way for us to help others is like the biggest thing. People talk about being numb to everything and it is not a good feeling. It is a pretty helpless situation at times for people and that’s why we are doing this.”

Divis and McKenzie, both of whom will graduate in May, are peer advocates within the student support network at St. Mike’s, providing assistance that includes education as to what health-related resources are available on campus and within the community.

With respect to HHH, the bottom line is that somebody does not have to suffer alone. It is easy to bottle things up within, but there is always somebody to lend an ear.

“We like to say it is okay not to be okay,” said McKenzie, an assistant captain and a Purple Knights’ forward with 10 career goals, including three this season. “I would say that somebody is always there and willing to talk. Somebody loves you. People are here to support you and I think a lot of times people don’t realize that or don’t want to realize that, but there is always at least someone.”

Anybody can be afflicted by mental health issues at any time.

Nobody is immune.

Against that backdrop, many people have found it ironic that hockey players have such troubles. But hockey players are people, too, and that has helped in delivering the message.

“I think a big thing is that two male hockey players, of all people, are speaking up about this issue,” said Divis, the Purple Knights’ captain and a defenseman with 18 points in 22 games. “That plays a big role because male athletes that are hockey players and are supposed to be tough are the ones saying, ‘Hey, it’s okay to have these types of issues and to talk about it and seek help.’”

It is hard to imagine two better student-athletes involved in such an endeavor. Divis is an English major with a business minor and McKenzie, a Hawthorne, N.J. native, is an information systems major with a minor in psychology. Together, their list of academic accolades from the school, NE-10 and New England Hockey Conference could fill a box score.

McKenzie gets set for a faceoff in a recent contest for SMC (photo: James Buck).

Even after they graduate it is imperative that HHH continue to flourish. To that extent Divis noted there are about a half-dozen St. Mike’s students dedicated to keeping the mission alive and well. At some point, McKenize and Divis may be even more involved.

“Justin and I have thought about, once we figure out what we are doing with our professional lives, establishing a non-profit,” said Divis, who is looking into law school. “Based on the reception (HHH) has had the past couple of years, that seems like a reasonable thing. Right now we hope that it continues to grow on campus.”

Being Humanitarian Award nominees underscores how people are noticing the significant strides they have taken to assist others.

“Being nominated for this award will hopefully spread even more awareness for mental health,” said Divis. “That would be awesome.”

So is the work McKenzie and Divis have done and continue to do.