This week the cycling community tragically lost an incredible athlete, Kelly Catlin, to suicide. I can only imagine the hole she has left in so many people’s lives – she was an incredibly talented cyclist, but of course there is so much more to athletes than just their sport. My deep and sincere condolences to her family and to everyone who has been touched by her loss.
Suicide is such a difficult topic, but I feel compelled to write something here as mental health is an issue that I’m connected to in many ways. I have had, and currently have, my own battles with depression. Despite that, or maybe because of that, I also feel that there are things we can do in my sport (cycling) and in society that have the potential to help.
When someone close to you is struggling, it’s incredibly difficult to watch. More than anything in the world you want to be able to help them, to almost reach into their brain and take the bad thoughts out of it. You worry, as if your worrying will keep them here and alive. If, tragically, they do end their life, you look back for a moment, any moment, when you could have done something differently to save them. This is so hard to let go of.
I hope this doesn’t seem like a crass parallel to draw, but I used to be terrified of flying. Every flight I took, I’d throw up after spending the entire flight being convinced I was going to die. I had to have a window seat, so that I could see the ground (or the clouds, or whatever there was to see) so that I could hold the plane up in the sky with the sheer force of my worry. One day, I was just too exhausted to worry on a flight… and the plane stayed up anyhow. It was a revelation. I also realized that if the plane had something wrong with it, my worry wouldn’t fix it.
People with serious depression and suicidal thoughts are in a place the many of us can’t imagine. We take that window seat and we love them as hard as we can to try to keep them in the air, and do everything within our ability to try to help them. But the sheer force of our worry can’t save them. You can’t save people, you can only love them. So what can we do, as a sport and as a society, to try to keep as many people as possible away from that dark place?
After the Canadian Cycling community lost a member to suicide, I reached out to Clara Hughes to ask what Cycling Canada, as a sports organization, could do to prevent this from happening again. Clara has an incredible pedigree in cycling and speed skating, and had been brave enough to be the first face of the Bell “Let’s Talk” campaign to reduce stigma around mental health (Thank you, Clara!). Her advice to me was clear and simple: We needed a Mental Health Strategy, and we need to educate people in our workplace. These were tangible “things to do”, which I followed through on. The strategy attempted to lay out a road map for how mental health issues would be approached by the organization, for everyone involved including athletes and staff. It was important to me that it wasn’t just a document written to tick a box, it needed to be a practical guide. Morneau Shepell, the company that delivers mental health in the workplace training for the Let’s Talk campaign, worked closely with me to tailor their training course for high performance sports organizations, and delivered this training to our staff. It made a significant difference to how people perceived their knowledge of mental health, and I saw it make a difference in the way issues were discussed within the team. By no means do these two approaches fix the problem, but they are resources to reach for in times of uncertainty.
Another piece of the puzzle is Sport Psychiatry. This has become a well-recognized service in the UK after a number of hugely successful British cyclists talked about the value of working with Dr. Steve Peters. However, in North America it is still a service that is struggling to be acknowledged or accepted. It plays an important role in ensuring the well-being of athletes (and staff), alongside Sport Psychology, Mental Training, and services like Performance Lifestyle / Career Coaching. Psychiatry done well, with a combination of empathetic psychotherapy and medication when appropriate, uses a different toolbox than those other services and can make a huge impact.
This is a complicated puzzle and I hope I haven’t made it sound like I think these few pieces will solve everything. They can’t, and they won’t. They are, however, corner pieces that can anchor the rest of the puzzle, which will be different for every athlete and every person. Organizational strategy, knowledge, specialized help, and love. Let’s start this puzzle together.