Mental illness – whether it’s depression, anxiety, eating disorders, addictions, bi-polar disorder, etc., can affect anyone, but those in the fitness industry are at a higher risk for emotional disorders than the general population. And for a variety of reasons. For some, it’s because of the emotional impact of trying to impart an impossibly perfected image of ourselves. It may very well be the side effects of anabolic steroid use. And for others it’s simply genetics – a genetically inherited predisposition to mental illness. But whatever the reason, the truth is, we don’t talk enough about our mental health in the fitness community. So, let’s talk.
Avoiding the subject hurts us all, not just those among us who live with mental illness. The only way for all of us in the fitness community to tackle the epidemic of mental illness in Canada… the only way to eradicate the stigma of mental illness, whether we have never encountered a mental health episode ourselves, or whether we personally live with one, is to talk about it. How else will we ever overcome the stigma; how else will we ever be comfortable enough to support our peers living with mental illness if we as a community are afraid to talk about it?
Let’s start with the facts. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, in any given year, one in five Canadians (20 percent) will experience a mental health or addiction episode. That means out of a total population of 38 million people, 7.6 million Canadians will struggle with a mental health or addiction issue. And the pandemic has only made this situation worse. In a poll conducted in January 2022 by Nanos Research for CTV News, a combined 47 percent of Canadians polled said their mental health has worsened or somewhat worsened due to the impact of coronavirus.
I am among that 47 percent. And I know I am not alone in the fitness community. I’ve struggled with depression and low self-esteem issues since I was a kid. An abusive childhood set the stage for what would become a difficult adolescence, young adulthood, and then adulthood. In fact, it was my own awareness of my low teenage self-esteem that served as motivation to buy my first “junior” bodybuilding kit at a Canadian Tire store. Even at that early age, I had a belief that working out could help address my low self-esteem. I would venture to say that some of you reading this may be able to relate.
There I was, at age 15, dragging that box full of plastic-coated concrete weights all the way home along a slush covered sidewalk one cold Toronto winter day 45 years ago. I was that determined to find a way to feel good about my teenage self in the face of the relentless bullying and marginalization not only by school peers, but even by my high school gym teacher. Muscle building, I felt, was one way to prove, if not to anyone at school, then at least to myself, that I was not the cowardly pushover I had been labelled by classmates. From that point on, and to this day, weightlifting has become the most consistent, most predictable, and most reliable antidote to my depressive illness. While the many anti-depressant medications I have been on over the years have met with varying degrees of success (and failures), nothing proved as consistently beneficial in managing my depression as weight training; and without any of the nasty side effects I would sometimes experience from the medications.
In fact, that is exactly why I became a fitness professional – first as a GoodLife Fitness personal trainer, and later a community college instructor of Fitness and Health Promotion. Exercise has made that much of a difference in my life, and as a fitness professional I wanted a platform where I could share with others like me, who are living with mental health challenges…and hopefully encourage and motivate them too.
As an outgrowth of my decade’s long dedication to fitness and wellness, the courage I gained to start weight training as a teenager has also given me the courage today to speak openly and candidly about my own mental health struggles. This is the only way to stamp out the stigma. Living with a mental illness is no different than having a physical illness. We don’t see people living with high blood pressure afraid to tell people about their condition. We don’t see people living with diabetes, or arthritis, or heart disease embarrassed to talk about it. But we still feel ashamed to openly disclose that we may live with depression or chronic anxiety, or bi-polar, or anorexia, or bulimia or other eating disorders… or body image issues like body dysmorphia (a distorted body image) or muscle dysmorphia (also known as “bigorexia”). These are just some of the mental health issues that are all too common in the fitness industry – psychological conditions that are still taboo to talk about for fear of judgement, dismissal, or worse, potential rejection by fellow fitness professionals.
For those of us who, like me, are challenged with mental health, let’s be as strong about opening up and sharing our challenges as we are strong in our bodies. Let’s be strong for those among us who suffer in silence because they believe they are alone. If you’re struggling with a mental health issue, there are many community resources you can access for help. A list of referrals follows this article. And for those who are fortunate enough to not have had to deal with a mental health issue, please become an ally, an advocate, a champion of mental health causes. If you see someone or have a feeling another fitness professional or one of your clients is struggling with mental health, reach out and offer them your support. Share the resources listed below. Because too often, due to the stigma of mental illness, those of us who need help are often too ashamed to ask for help.
As fitness professionals, we excel at motivating. Together let’s motivate each other – a community coming together for mental health support – our own and that of our colleagues in the industry. Let’s build a community of caring people who reach out to those who need our support, and who are determined and committed to fighting the stigma of mental illness.
For anyone who would like to contact me and share your story, please feel free to reach out via email – firstname.lastname@example.org. I am dedicated to supporting others like me, who strive each day to build a healthy mind in a healthy body.
For anyone in need of mental health support services across Canada, here are resources to access:
- Government of Canada mental health web page providing links to community resources Mental health services – Canada.ca
- Canadian Mental Health Association – national advocacy organization with branches across Canada providing mental health services – find your local office here: Home – CMHA National
- Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport – National Organization supporting mental health – resource list: Mental Health Resources – CCMHS (ccmhs-ccsms.ca)
- eMentalHealth.ca: Crisis Lines including Telephone, Online and Chat : Toronto, ON : Mental Health Services, Help and Support : eMentalHealth.ca
- Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addictions – provides a list of Addiction Treatment Helplines in Canada. Addictions Treatment Helplines in Canada | Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (ccsa.ca)