January 28, 2016 by Speakers' Spotlight
Sharing My Mental Health Story Was Tougher Than Olympic Competition
Four-time Olympian Silken Laumann is one of Canada’s most inspirational leaders, a bestselling author, and a highly recognizable and beloved athlete. As an elite athlete, writer, and life coach, Silken has made her work reaching her own potential and helping others reach theirs. Inspiring, funny, thought provoking and always down to earth, Silken opens her heart and leaves her audience ready to unlock their own potential and aspire to their own greatness. What prevails in Silken is the human spirit, the humor to keep learning through the failures, the courage to see opportunities within obstacles, and the tenacity to never stop trying to be better. Yesterday, Silken shared this column on her mental health story in celebration of #BellLetsTalk Day:
I get excited about Bell Let’s Talk day. It’s a day when we give ourselves permission to have open conversations about mental illness. Kudos to Clara Hughes and the team who championed this initiative from the start, and in a few short years pried the conversation about mental health wide open.
It took vision and courage to create this national campaign at a time where very few high-profile Canadians were talking about mental illness. It still takes courage to talk about mental illness.
Sharing my story in Unsinkable was more terrifying than sitting in the starting gates of an Olympic final. I felt like I was daring myself to cross some arbitrary line in the sand, and once I did, there would be no turning back. Canadians’ perceptions of who I was, and certainly their knowledge of my life story, would be forever altered. Even if only a few dozen people heard my story, it felt big to share personally and publicly.
I knew how people might react. When I told my soon-to-be husband that I suffered from anxiety and depression, he looked at me with confusion. When I told him that I took a pill daily to keep my anxiety at bay, he looked a bit alarmed. “What are you like without your pills?” he asked, sheepishly. I felt angry and frustrated, but I got it.
Many people have had no experience with mental illness, they don’t understand that anxiety can be low-grade and persistent, and sometimes a person’s liver isn’t their best friend. I explained to him that an antidepressant didn’t change my personality, it didn’t make me any less me, it simply lessened my feelings of anxiety and being overwhelmed.
I was fortunate that my husband was open to learning, and he loved me deeply. He became my biggest champion, a person in my life who could observe the subtle changes in my mood and encourage me to reach out for help when he saw the early signs of anxiety building. He has become a big advocate about mental health in his company, and I now hear him share his own struggles with people on his team.
It’s so powerful how this can work, how finding the courage to share openly invites other people to share their experiences until eventually we can have more open conversations about our mental health.
I grew up with a mother who had and has an undiagnosed mental illness. A creative and intelligent woman, her mood swings were extreme and her behaviour confusing and sometimes downright frightening. I am sure, had she had a choice, she would have been a more stable and loving mother to all of us. But she didn’t have a choice, and her fears about getting help were well-founded.
When my mom was my age, you could be institutionalized against your will for mental illness, you could have shock therapy against your will, you could be taken away from your children. I have shed many tears over my mom’s situation, but what makes me most sad is that she will likely never experience what it is like to be healthy. We will never get a chance to see that healthy person.
There is a lot of suffering that happens to individuals and families when mental illness is left untreated. People lose their partners, their friends, their children to the disease. Some people, through no fault of their own, never make it back.
I feel deep compassion for these people. What is inexcusable is when the stigma of mental illness prevents people from getting help. This is something we can do something about. This is something that each of us has the power to influence. We can be aware of the language we use like “mental,” “crazy,” “sick in the head.” Language is powerful and reflects our deeply held beliefs.
We can seek to become less ignorant about mental illness, it’s through knowledge that we can better understand that mental health and mental illness is a continuum. We are all vulnerable. Any one of us could experience a mental illness in our lifetime, and in fact one in five of Canadians will.
Today and every day of the year, let’s have open conversations about mental illness as we would any other physical ailment affecting the people we care about.
Three suggestions for ending the stigma of mental illness:
Talk. If you have or have had a mental illness, find the courage to talk to your friends, family and even your colleagues about it. This helps normalize the conversation, educate people in your life and give others an opportunity to share their own experiences.
Listen. Listen to people who have had mental illness share their experiences. There is nothing to be afraid of, and you might be surprised at how many of your beliefs are challenged. Listening is also the greatest respect you can show another individual.
Practice compassion. With yourself and your own issues, and with all the people in your life. We need to be kinder to one another.