Written by Teagan Pringle
Talking about one’s personal journey with mental illness can be incredibly difficult and a very sensitive topic, but mental illness should not be something a person feels limited by, or treated differently because of their personal struggles.
Bell Let’s Talk day is highly endorsed by olympic athlete Clara Hughes who lives with depression. This day encourages many athletic organizations to get behind the movement and support Bell Let’s Talk in a variety of ways. As an athlete myself, mental illness unfortunately affected many aspects of my life, including my sport, and my senior, and final year as an elite athlete.
Last year, I experienced my first panic attack, and it just so happened to be in my home arena during a team practice. There was only ten minutes left in practice as I skated back on the bench after a physically exhausting drill. As I sat there, my mind began to race in an innumerable amount of directions; my heart was beating out of my chest and my breathing began to pick up pace, despite the fact that I wasn’t participating in vigorous activity, but trying to recover from it. My body was trembling beneath me as I fought in attempt to take back control over my own body. After briefly mumbling something to my coach and hastily hurrying off the ice I immediately burst into the team dressing room as tears began to spill from my eyes. Fortunately, the athletic trainer of our program had experienced anxiety and was able to walk me through what I was experiencing and help me calm down. Since this event, my mental health only deteriorated even more when it came to my sport. This current season started like any other, however aspects of myself within my sport were changing. I was constantly irritable, often lashing out during practice. My anxiety levels rose anytime I entered the team dressing room, and my self confidence went in the toilet. Mental illness seeps into your life in areas that you would never expect it too. Personally, my mental illness took a game away from me that I was inconceivably passionate for. In the world of sport, athletes are constantly encouraged to be mentally tough, to listen to their bodies, to persevere and surpass any pain that is holding them back. Having sports playing a major role for much of my lifetime, naturally this was my personal mentality that I had adapted too. So to try and understand what was going on was completely out of reach as my mind was betraying me. How could I physically be so healthy, yet have my mind be creating such barriers? How was I supposed to try to learn to listen to mind, versus listen to my body? Why wasn’t I strong enough to persevere past my own limitations?
Clara Hughes said, “It’s something I deal with to this day, a fear of falling back into that darkness. I see athletes go through a similar thing. … With athletes, it’s never fully understood the level to which we push ourselves.”
Similar to all that Hughes has done for mental illness, athletes have the ability to make a drastic difference and promote important issues, due to the spotlight that is constantly placed upon them. However, this can also destroy and heavily impact one's mental health, whether they are battling mental illness or not. The pressure of constantly trying to perform at one’s best can be motivating but also exhausting.
As much as mental health advocates, people supporting mental health initiatives, and even every individual using #bellletstalk encourages the destigmatization of mental illness, many people still do not personally educate themselves or try to understand what a person is going through, and learning to have patience with them. If a person is not themselves battling mental illness it can be hard to even manifest what a person may be dealing with, and certain judgments or assumptions may be created. This is where the principles of Bell Let’s Talk are incredibly important: language matters, educate yourself, be kind, listen and ask, and talk about it. Have empathy and compassion as you practice these principles as you try to understand what an individual is facing as they may not even fully understand the impacts of their mental illness.
So today, as you tweet, Facebook post, text message, and talk on the phone, remember what exactly you are doing it for. Bell Let’s Talk day only happens once a year, but remember that for the individuals that you are advocating for have to deal with this medical condition every day of their lives, and it is is something that never ends for them. Reflect on your own personal actions, and whether or not you are truly being a good advocate for mental health, and helping to end the stigma. Although 1 out of 5 Canadians only experience the severe impacts of mental illness, 5 out of 5 of us have mental health and need to look after it every day.