Olympians help to strengthen the mind


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With the weight of a nation riding on their shoulders, Olympians have to make sure their bodies are completely ready for the games – facing unbelievable mental pressure as well. What many people don’t know is that Olympians often will have spent as much time working on their mental wellness as they will have their physical strength, and now many of them are returning to the community to share their valuable insight into how to be the best.

While regular physical activity is very good for your mental health, extreme amounts of it (like training for hours a day at the national competitive level) can have a negative effect. Elite athletes like Olympians are much more susceptible to psychiatric conditions such as major depressive disorder. This is from things like burning out, loss of personal autonomy from intense training schedules, ‘identity-foreclosure’ from having fewer ways of expressing personality in their environment, and the possibility of injury or otherwise being unable to compete. Many will struggle, and many will overcome.

Because of this, they make ideal spokespeople for organizations and the like that seek to combat mental distress and stigma towards mental illness.

6-time Olympic medalist Clara Hughes joined Bell Let’s Talk as a spokesperson in 2010. This nationwide organization has started initiatives to combat stigma, increase access to better care, improve workplace wellbeing, and research mental health. Bell Let’s Talk day is an annual event that happens in the winter. The aim is to end the stigma that prevents many people with mental illness from seeking help. The money they raise has gone to increasing access to better care, and has been given to institutions like the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Royal Ottawa Hospital Foundation, La Fondation de l’Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal and many more. They also have initiatives to improve workplace mental health, and lead by example with their voluntary Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. Millions of dollars go to researching mental health through universities and health facilities.

Clara suffered from depression as a young athlete, and knows the immense hurdles it takes to be able to overcome mental illness to continue doing your job, let alone do it well. After having won two bronze medals in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Clara found herself struggling with her mental health.

And now, Clara isn’t the only Olympian speaking out.  

The Canadian Olympic team began an initiative with young students called Give Your Everything-Be a Champion for Life, which focuses on students fostering mental fitness. Mental fitness is based on research that shows that 70 per cent of thoughts humans experience in a day are negative, and through positive qualities, belonging, and the ability to make healthy choices we can turn those thoughts around. You can work out the brain the same way you would work out the body – through practice. The program involves interactive activities, handouts, and writing assignments on top of hearing athletes’ stories for inspiration. While the program does use athletes to educate, the values they teach can be applied to anything from sports to math to art.

With a nation full of expectations behind them and years of hard training, who better than Olympians to teach children how to foster mental wellness?

The Give Your Everything program began in February of 2013 with a launch at Doon Public School in Kitchener, ON. Students heard stories from rower Brian Price, boxer Mary Spencer, short track speed skater Isabelle Charest, and Mark Oldershaw of canoeing.

Silken Laumann, 3-time Olympic medalist for rowing, suffers from anxiety and depression. She wrote a memoir called Unsinkable, which talks about her experience with the Olympics, the struggle of growing up with a mother living with an undiagnosed mental illness, and much more. She admits to being terrified to tell her story at first, but the more the general population hears about such inspirational people suffering from mental illness, the more we can kill the stigma right where it starts.

1 in 5 people will suffer from mental illness at some point in their life, and hearing about the struggles of some of society’s most successful makes people feel like they aren’t alone, and that not everything is lost. Olympians will have spent years struggling and fighting, training and losing, and overcoming all of these things to get where they are today. Now, they are telling their stories to help people strengthen their minds to combat- and prevent-mental illness.

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