Maple Leafs Head Coach Mike Babcock does not shy away from talking about mental health, making a point to regularly ask his players “what are you thinking?”

“Usually nothing happens,” he said. “If you ask that enough, you might get something. Some people share more than others.”

In a one-on-one interview with CTV News Toronto, Babcock said that he wasn’t aware of the importance of mental health until 2013, when two people he knew died as a result of mental illness. He said he knew at that point he had to speak out and help others.

Babcock said he took the time to educate himself and his family, something he encourages everyone to do.

“The biggest thing is the idea of talking,” he said. “When you are going to a dental appointment, your dental health is simple; you just say you are going to the dentist. When you are talking about your mental health, you don’t just say ‘oh I’m going to my psychiatrist.’ It just seems to be approached a different way.”

The 55-year-old father of three said that learning more about mental health has led to a shift in how he approaches coaching his players.

“If you think a guy is going to perform good when he's not feeling good, he’s not. You play and perform the best when you are feeling good about who you are,” Babcock said. “How do you feel good about who you are if you are struggling and if you’ve got the loop in your head and you can’t make that loop stop?”

His goal, he said, is to make sure his players feel comfortable talking to one another. Babcock noted that younger athletes, who play in cities far away from home and family, may be at a particular disadvantage. Being alone with no to talk to is “the worst thing that could ever happen,” he explained.

“If you can create an environment where people talk and people share and it feels like home, it feels like family and it is a safe place, I think you are in a better situation to deal with this.”

Babcock told CTV News Toronto that if a player approached him and the Leafs’ medical team with a mental health concern, he would allow the player not to go out on the ice. However, he also said he has never had to make that decision.

“I’d like to hope that what we are trying to do is arm our players with resources for them to help themselves and resources for us to help them. But with one in five Canadians suffering from mental health issues, it’s got to effect some people on the team.”

He also said he encourages his players to find joy in life outside of hockey and to surround themselves with a network of supportive people.

In the lead up to Bell Let’s Talk Day, a campaign that aims to help reduce the stigma of mental illness and raise money for mental health initiatives, Babcock said it’s important to understand that everyone has health issues. No one should suffer in silence, he said.

“For those of us who are not affected, be kind, educate ourselves so we can recognize some of the symptoms,” said Babcock, who is an ambassador of Bell Let's Talk Day. “I think when you understand and know that, you have a better chance to help, you have a better chance to be kind, you have a better chance to communicate and maybe a better chance to ask the right questions.”

Bell Let’s Talk Day is held on Jan. 30.

CTV News Toronto is a division of Bell Media.