When athletes experience physical injury to themselves, it’s usually the first thing we hear about. However, there is a conversation that’s not happening in the sports world and that’s about mental health. When an athlete experiences a mental health issue, more often than not they are suffering in silence without getting the help they need.
But there is one athlete trying to change that narrative. Olympian Travis Gerrits, the Canadian freestyle skier, was initially diagnosed with Type One Bipolar Disorder in November of 2014 just eight months after his Olympic debut in Sochi, Russia. After feeling like he was a failure and experiencing intense fluctuations in my mood and emotion, he went to the hospital and discovered that he was bipolar. This experience made Gerrits realize that more work regarding mental health and visibility in the sports world was needed.
On September 15, 2018, Travis Gerrits is throwing his support behind the RBC Race for the Kids, which provides funding for Sunnybrook’s Family Navigation Project, a non-profit program that works on health and addictions services to youth aged 13-26. We sat down with Travis to chat mental health stigma and why it’s okay to be vulnerable.
Edit Seven: Can you speak to us a bit about when you were diagnosed?
Travis Gerrits: I was initially diagnosed with Type One Bipolar Disorder in November of 2014. Just 8 months after my Olympic debut in Sochi, Russia, where I finished in 7th place. Because I had such high expectations for myself at the Games, I was initially disappointed in my result and it took some time to overcome that feeling of “failure”. I was experiencing intense fluctuations in my mood and emotions and after going into the hospital, I left with the diagnosis of bipolar. Fast forward four years and still to this day I am learning more and more about myself and my most recent update in terms of mental health would be to say that the professionals I have seen in the field believe that Borderline Personality Disorder is a better “fit” as a diagnosis.
All I can say through my experiences in navigating my physical and mental health over the years is that: aerial skiing is what I do, and is not who I am. Any diagnosis under the sun does not define who I am as a person either. Although an accurate diagnosis can definitely change the course of action for treatment.
E7: Do you ever meet people have misconceptions about what your disorder entails?
TG: I most definitely encounter people with misconceptions about mental health illnesses. I have been working hard at not ever letting that get to me though. No individual can be an expert in every single aspect of every single illness, myself included. Patience and a willingness to listen to others have gone a long way for me. Talking about my own personal struggles along the way is an attempt at redefining some of these misconceptions and even then, each individual experiences and expresses similar struggles very differently.
E7: Why do you think there is such a stigma, specifically in the sports community?
TG: Athletes are often seen as indestructible, untouchable and fearless. The stigma surrounding mental health in the sports community originates – in my opinion – from that specific mentality where we are afraid to speak out, for fear of accepting the fact that we can all be affected by injury and illness. We are afraid of being perceived as having less “podium potential” in an industry where your health, – body and mind – are your tools to success.
E7: Why do you think it’s important athletes speak about mental health and the importance of addressing it?
TG: Speaking about mental health regardless of profession or age is such an important step for us all to take in order to truly understand the impact that it has on our communities and families in order to help educate, treat and prevent all mental health struggles. High-performance athletes are no different than any other person, except for the fact that in some cases they have a voice that should be heard when bringing issues that are close to heart to light in their communities.
E7: By supporting RBC Race for the Kids, what are you hoping to achieve?
TG: The RBC Race for the Kids is so close to heart for me, as I see the amazing work and success stories that come from the funds raised in support of youth mental health. I am inspired by conversations started and the sheer number of people out there willing to spark change in our communities. If my story inspires even just one person to ask for help or to ask if others need help, would be my idea of success. Bringing families together and mental health to the forefront of health itself would make me a happy camper.
E7: Can you speak to me a little bit about the Sunnybrook’s Family Navigation Project and what they do and why you decided to partner with them?
TG: The Family Navigation Project has a vision where prompt care for individuals and their families find assistance in navigating the mental health care system with services and professionals all targeting one thing – improved quality of life. I like this vision because it targets not just the individual suffering, but provides services and overall care for a greater vision – the family! A family is more often than not youth’s first resource in identifying struggles and providing support to see them get through the other side of the tunnel.
Building these key relationships within the professional field of mental health is essential in the long-term care of any individual directly or indirectly affected by mental health.
E7: If people are feeling scared or alone in their own diagnosis or have yet to be diagnosed, what would you suggest to them?
TG: Despite the statistics that show 1.2 million young Canadians struggle with mental health and that only 1 out of 5 actually get the specialized treatment they need, I’d simply like to say that we all experience symptoms differently than others. It is okay to be different and we’re all in this together, regardless of specific labels.
(Story by Contributing Editor, Ama Scriver)