MOORHEAD — They almost look like brothers — handsome and well-liked hockey players, beloved by both family and community — but Eli Johnson and Max Marvin grew up 200 miles from each other; not brothers but tied together by tragedy. Both young men died by suicide at the age of 19.
This weekend, young hockey players from Moorhead, where Johnson lived, and Warroad, Minn., where Marvin lived, will be together raising awareness and inspiring hope that mental illness will never again claim one of their own.
“Every hockey player in Moorhead who knew Eli was affected by his death. It hit us like a ton of bricks,” says Amber Ferrie, a mom of three young hockey players ages 11, 8 and 6.
Now, Ferrie and fellow Moorhead Youth Hockey mom Lezlee Bertie, Eli’s sister Madeline Johnson and friend Megan MacFarlane are taking action by establishing a platform through MNMindsMatter, a way to share resources and ideas for reaching young people and encouraging conversation about mental health.
“We have this captive audience in hockey rinks five months out of the year,” Ferrie says. “We just thought, 'What can we do to reach these kids?'”
In December, Ferrie might have gotten the answer. She saw a tweet from Osseo Hockey about its upcoming Mental Health Awareness Day in honor of Max Marvin. Organizers there were working with the Max Foundation — the Warroad-based foundation set up to support and spread mental wellness education and communication to youth. She immediately reached out to see if something similar could be done in Moorhead.
Max Foundation @MaxFoundation5 apparel has arrived and will be for sale at tomorrows games vs. St. Louis Park 1:00/3:00. All proceeds go toward mental health education and awareness. #liveyourbestlife pic.twitter.com/Re71MessF8— Osseo Hockey (@osseo_hockey) December 13, 2019
Ferrie remembers telling Conway Marvin, a Max Foundation board member, that she wasn’t a mental health professional so she didn’t even know where to start.
“He said, ‘I’m not either,’ but what we learned with Max is you don’t have to know everything, but doing nothing isn’t an option," Ferrie says. "That really resonated with me."
Ferrie enlisted MacFarlane’s help. MacFarlane studies elementary education and also happens to be Ferrie’s nanny. She was the captain of the Moorhead High Girls Hockey team when Eli was the captain of the boys team.
“Eli was the kind of guy who walked down the hallway with a smile on his face,” MacFarlane says. “He was good in school and kind to everyone. If you weren’t included, he would be the one to reach out.”
In the long term, Ferrie, MacFarlane and the others want to honor Eli by renaming the MYHA Squirt tournament coming up in December in his memory. This weekend, MNMindsMatter will hold a kickoff event at the Squirt Tournament at the Cullen Hockey Center. During this first “Minds Matter” game, MacFarlane says they’ll have Solutions Behavioral Healthcare Professionals in the lobby of the arena answering questions about mental health.
“We’ll also be distributing information to the players about signs to look for, steps to take and numbers to use to get into contact with mental health services,” she says.
They’ll also be giving each player a pin featuring both Max and Eli’s hockey numbers over their respective towns with a phone number at the bottom of the pin to text if they or a friend needs help.
Ferrie says their goals are to raise awareness and eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health and connect people to resources. They’re working with the same sports psychologist used by the NHL's Minnesota Wild, and they would eventually like to see curriculum introduced into area schools.
That goal may take some time to reach, so in the meantime, Ferrie says it’s about starting conversations with the athletes in Moorhead Youth Hockey, which includes kids 5 to 18 years old.
“We’re not necessarily talking about depression, anxiety and suicide, particularly at the younger ages,” Ferrie says. “We want to talk about foundational things to help them understand their minds and their feelings, the real building blocks of success with mental health.”
Ferrie says they’re still working out all the details, but they hope to achieve their goals through Minds Matter games and by establishing team leaders and monthly topics related to mental health.
“For example, maybe January would be ‘Mindfulness Month’ and we’d share worksheets with them, things like that,” Ferrie says.
Ferrie says she hopes Minds Matter won’t stop with Moorhead Youth Hockey. She’d love to talk with other groups to help them start a conversation.
“We have Moorhead Youth Hockey covered,” Ferrie says. “Now we want basketball, orchestra, football. We want everybody to say, ‘Hey, this is a platform can use to share ideas (about kids’ mental health).' There’s something every group can do.”
Ferrie says looking at photos of Max and Eli brings home the gravity of the situation.
“These were not marginalized kids. These are the kids oftentimes we want our kids to be like — natural-born leaders, involved, respectful and respected,” Ferrie says. “It (mental illness) doesn’t discriminate. This happened to them. This was something they were carrying that was largely unknown — something they didn't’ feel like they could talk about for whatever reason. I don’t know the answer, but perhaps with everyone opening up and talking about these things we can save it from happening to even one more kid.”
For more information or to learn more about using these resources with your group, reach out on Twitter at @mnmindsmatter.