Olympic medalist Elizabeth Manley talks about her struggles in speaking about mental health in the 1980s

Even though most everyone has been there, it still takes a lot of courage to pause and admit that you need help.

Now imagine how harder it could be to take a much-needed break if people were counting on you to represent the entire nation and you were in the public eye. Then imagine that you are not even 18 years old.

This is exactly what happened to Elizabeth Manley, a former competitive figure skater and Olympic medalist, who took a break from training at the age of 17 to focus on her anxiety and depression. And that was in the 1980s, long before we had events like World Mental Health Day (coming October 10) that helped make the conversation about mental health more mainstream.

“I’ve spent many years being really open about mental health and what I’ve been through,” Manley said. “To be honest, I was a trailblazer, since I was really the first athlete to come out and talk about it. It was right after the 88 Olympics, so we’re talking over 30 years ago.

Manley, who now works as a certified life coach in Ottawa, is this week receiving the Courage to Speak Award from the Center for Research and Training in Mental Health and Wellness at Carleton University. She will also speak about the outbreak of pandemic-related challenges she sees people facing at a conference for the University’s Psychology and Mental Health Day (October 7), as well as her own experience. lived.

Many of us only remember Manley’s triumphs. She won silver at the 1988 Olympic Games in Calgary and at the World Figure Skating Championships in the same year. She has also won the Canadian Figure Skating Championships three times. His accomplishments have earned him the Order of Canada as well as being inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame.

These were all hard-won battles for Manley, who, while training for the 1988 Olympics, struggled with anxiety and depression so severe that she stopped and had to quit s ‘train in Lake Placid. When she returned home to Ottawa her hair was falling out, she had gained a lot of weight from water retention and was diagnosed with clinical depression, which is detailed in her 1990 autobiography “Thumb Up” ‘air! : The Story of Elizabeth Manley. “

“It’s interesting that when this book came out people weren’t ready for it,” she recalls. “I think the stigma was still very high and people didn’t want to put ‘Canada’s sweetheart’ and ‘sanity’ in the same sentence. ”

Even before the book was released, Manley knew the stigma ran deep. As the 1988 Olympics and the World Championships in Budapest approached, people questioned his ability to compete.

“The local newspaper here (in Ottawa) ran a pretty harsh article about how I wasn’t strong enough to win a medal,” she recalls. “It was very devastating for me a few weeks before Calgary to read an article about my depression and anxiety, and how I wasn’t strong enough to win. It was really hard.

“In my day, it was ‘Suck it, buttercup’ and ‘Catch your tears in the parking lot cause we don’t want to see it,’ she said.

As far as we’ve come, Simone Biles, one of the most decorated gymnasts in the world, has withdrawn from some of the finals of the recent Tokyo Olympics in 2020 and, although there has been a lot of support , there were also negative reactions. It is clear that while some are no longer in the “suck it up” camp, there is still a lot of work to be done.

“I am proud of people like Simone Biles and other athletes who have made very important decisions in their careers to take better care of themselves,” said Manley. “It’s good to talk about it, because you don’t realize how much support there really is. I think a lot of people wanted to support me, but they were scared or didn’t know how to help me.

In his practice, Manley works with people from a wide range of professions – not just athletes, as you can guess. His experience as an athlete and public figure struggling with mental health is extraordinary, but the lessons apply and are easily transferable to other high-pressure professions and life situations. The pandemic, of course, has made its services in high demand, not only because of stress, but also because many people use this time to assess what they want their life to look like after the pandemic.

“I’m so happy now that we’re finally talking about it,” Manley said. “We’re finally opening the world to understanding mental health and how it affects people in the workplace, athletes and even children. “

“I think it was my calling from the start,” she added. “I think everything I went through in my life led to this. Leading me to this place to help others.


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