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  • K. McConnell, R. Psych.

#BellLetsTalk: Olympians, Exercise, and Mental Health

Mental illness knows no bounds. #BellLetsTalk day aims to bring awareness and #DefeattheStigma. It is fitting, then, that Carla Hughes, athlete and olympian, was one of the first ambassadors to help pave the way for this important day that brings awareness to mental health. As history would suggest, Olympians are those who are mortals, but as close to immortal as they come given their ability to stretch human limitations with each passing game. But as Clara says, the struggle she went through has value too, and she shares that value with others through the campaign.

Clara has been a spokesperson for the #BellLetsTalk campaign since its inception in 2010. Years ago, CTV aired 'Clara's Big Ride,' a documentary about her training in preparation for her 110 day, 11,000 km bike ride to raise awareness about mental health and mental illness in Canada. Hughes is the perfect spokesperson for the job. She's engaging, bubbly, and genuine. In the documentary, I remember her talking about the days where she struggled to get out of bed, and would cry for hours. It was hard to imagine what this might look like, and how different it was from the smile we saw on TV.

Silken Laumann is another Canadian Olympian who shared her experience of exercise and mental health. She had an eating disorder, a parent with mental illness, and her continued struggles with anxiety and depression. Watching Silken row felt like meditating. The smoothness and repetitive motions of her displacing the water with her oars could lead someone to believe that she would flow through life just as easily. However, this was not the case. Laumann wrote a memoir describing the challenges she faced and continues to battle every day. Today she is a public figure, hypnotherapist, and neurolinguistic programmer.

Lastly, Oliver Bone was a sailer for Canada at the 2008 Olympics. Unfortunately he did not place at the games. The training, financial toll, and disappointment with the loss lead him to retire from the sport in 2011. After learning about mental illness in a university class and realizing that he was suffering from depression, he was able to redirect his energies to his studies and looked at the relationship between depression in athletes and workplace burnout.

These 3 homegrown Olympians remind us that even the finest specimens of human drive and physicality can struggle with mental illness. Interestingly, each of them have gone on to blur the line sometimes reinforced by society that mental and physical wellness are two distinct endeavours. Vybarr Cregan-Reid in his book 'Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human' discusses how exercise doesn't necessarily make us more intelligent, but rather, "It makes you ready to become smarter. It prepares the hardware and the pathways needed for learning, but you have to actively do some learning yourself, too" (p. 103). These athletes all still share a love of sport and exercise, but have also embraced the inextricably linked connection of mental wellness to physical wellness. On #BellLetsTalk Day, take a cue from Cregan-Reid, and get out and get some air and exercise. Prep your brain to learn something new that you didn't already know about mental health. And then be sure to text, Tweet, or engage on social media with the hashtag #BellLetsTalk.

Olympians Exercise and Mental Health

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