Ryan Sutton is the Founder and CEO of HeadsupCAN Concussion Advocacy Network or HeadsupCAN. It’s a non-profit organization that sells apparel while also raising concussion awareness. Having experienced concussions himself, he founded HeadsupCAN to bring more awareness to an issue that has only gained attention in recent years.
I was fortunate enough to interview Ryan a while ago for my website. During this time, Ryan discussed HeadsupCAN, concussion awareness, and mental health. Check it out down below!
Elizabeth Sarah Larkin (EL): What prompted you to start HeadsupCAN?
Ryan Sutton (RS): After receiving my fourth concussion in 2016, I started to look at the injury completely differently. I realized that there wasn’t a community or even a place to go and feel like what you’re going through was normal in any way. The feeling of alienation when going through a concussion is what really got to me. It was hard to communicate what I was going through because no one could see anything physically- it was all mental.
Over the course of the next year, my best friend Cam Banika had an idea to start an apparel brand that donates back to concussion research. But the idea needed a lot of work it gave me a lot to think about. I began talking about the idea with my other best friend Seth, and he was really taken by the idea. From there, it was eight months of back and forth. When I came back from an exchange in Turks and Caicos in September of 2017, we started it.
EL: How does HeadsupCAN support those who’ve had concussions?
RS: HeadsupCAN is a shared experience platform that tells stories of concussion to help create more awareness of the injury. We aren’t scientists or doctors and don’t pretend to be at all. We believe in the power of a story and how it has the ability to make break the stigma around the injury. By sharing people’s stories, we have found that no two concussions are the same. But there are many aspects of an injury that people can resonate with. It may be the scenario in which the injury occurred, the symptoms that people went through, and/or how the felt emotionally through that experience. There are many other touchpoints that we’ve found with storytelling, but those are some common examples.
EL: What prompted you to start selling apparel?
RS: We didn’t have all the answers initially, but I’ve always wanted to start an apparel line. So that was something I was excited about at the beginning, not realizing that the organization would become something much bigger than an apparel brand. We now strive to become the national voice for concussion awareness. With all that said, we started by simply doing an intramural team order for our flag football team. From there, we started selling our apparel at tables we set up at Brock University in St. Catharines, ON. Our first day is still the best day of sales we have ever had. The response was absolutely amazing!
EL: How do you primarily promote your apparel?
RS: As mentioned, we started selling our apparel to intramural teams, and in-person at Brock University. By the end of the school year, we were actually the first student-run organization to have their apparel featured in the campus store. Our apparel was front and center all of March 2018 and well into April! Since leaving university, we’ve now shifted the apparel marketing online. We sell apparel from our website and have it linked to all of our social media pages. We also have Instagram and Facebook stores that are able to process sales on those platforms.
EL: How did you get other organizations to partner with you?
RS: To get organizations to partner with us, we focused on reaching out to them with a clear plan of what we’re hoping to accomplish with their help. Having clarity in what we wanted really helped us to establish credibility immediately by partnering with the Canadian Concussion Centre (CCC) out of the Toronto Western Hospital. The CCC is led by renown neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Tator. We had the pleasure of pitching him the idea of a partnership in October 2017. We walked out with a partnership and a better understanding of the concussion realm. He helped create an organization called Parachute Canada which we now get the majority of our resources from.
EL: What’s been your biggest partnership to date?
RS: The CCC partnership was a massive one that helped give us credibility. But I think our biggest partnership up to date is Daniel Carcillo. He is a two-time Stanley Cup Champion and an active advocate for concussions and traumatic brain injuries, mental health, and plant medicines. We’ve developed a very personal relationship with Daniel, and we’ve begun doing really great work together in the awareness realm.
EL: Are there any non-profits and/or for-profit organizations you want HeadsupCAN to partner with?
RS: I’d like to partner with anyone who shares a love for concussion awareness. We’re currently looking to partner with provincial sport organizations as their concussion awareness and education team. We’ve also been approached by two PSOs, and are looking to expand upon that number very soon.
EL: Aside from selling apparel and creating partnerships, how else is HeadsupCAN working to bring more awareness to concussions?
RS: We’ve recently created our HeadsupCAN Advocates program that empowers individuals to share their story, and we stay consistent when posting on social media. We’re really excited about the Advocate program because it allows us to share people’s stories in a multitude of ways. The potential of the program is massive, and we’re looking forward to working with our Advocates to share their very personal stories for the purpose of spreading awareness and challenging the stigma around the injury.
EL: Do you think concussions are becoming a bigger deal now than they were a few years ago?
RS: Yes. I think people are beginning to take them more seriously, but I think we still have a long way to go. There are still minimal answers on how to actually treat a concussion, and people still don’t take the magnitude of the “invisible injury” seriously. People are more equipped to understand a concussion, but the practice of actually understanding the individualized experience of it varies greatly. We at HeadsupCAN are looking forward to carrying the momentum that has been built and taking it to the next level.
EL: Do you believe that your personal experience with concussions gives you a unique perspective on the issue of concussions?
RS: My personal experience with the injury is unique to me because only I went through it. That helped me become more empathetic for people going through a concussion as a result. So yes, it does give me a unique perspective. But as I mentioned, I believe people go through the injury very differently, and the context of an injury can have implications as well. I think where my perspective becomes a little more unique is the fact that I interact with people every day who have suffered a concussion, and we actually talk about what they go through.
EL: What do you believe Canada’s health system can do to help those who’ve had a concussion?
RS: Canada’s government could do a lot more to help those who have had a concussion. First, they need to have a concussion protocol or policy at every provincial and territorial level, which we don’t currently have. Ontario has Rowan’s Law, which is the first provincial law concerning concussion protocol. Past this, the government needs to regulate information sharing between physicians, teachers, coaches, parents, etc. There’s no one set of guidelines that have a holistic view on the entire concussion landscape from diagnosis, monitoring, and returning to play. There’s also a huge disparity in how much a family physician or ER doctor knows about the injury. Plus, if you go to the ER, there’s no follow up. Instead, you have to follow up with a walk-in clinic doctor, who may not have access to your information. Additionally, I think having a mental health counselling component to rehabbing a concussion should be mandatory, as it typically takes a big mental toll on a person.
EL: Do you think HeadsupCAN will focus solely on concussion awareness, or will there be a bigger focus on all sports-related injuries?
RS: We’ll stay focused on concussions and mental health. The only other avenue we may dive further into is the full spectrum of traumatic brain injury.
EL: What do you hope comes next for HeadsupCAN?
RS: The hope is that we’re able to inspire people to talk about the injury in new ways. We want to become the leader in concussion awareness, so finding unique ways to spread awareness is something we look forward to pushing!
EL: Where can people check out HeadsupCAN?