Silken Laumann speaks out against stigma at Champions for Mental Health dinner

Silken Laumann speaks out against stigma at Champions for Mental Health dinner

There came a point in Silken Laumann's childhood when the pressure she felt was so crushing that she resorted to self-harming.

It's a painful and private memory from a challenging childhood, but something the three-time Olympic medallist says is important to talk about.  

In fact, speaking out about her experiences with mental health and inspiring others has become a big part of life for Laumann.

"So many people struggle with mental health, either themselves or a family member," she told CBC Saskatchewan's The Morning Edition.

"We are talking more openly about it and realizing that having a mental health issue doesn't have to be the defining characteristic.

"I mean, I'm an Olympic athlete, I'm a mom, I'm a speaker, I'm a writer — and I've also had anxiety and depression."

Laumann, who won medals at the 1984, 1992 and 1996 Olympics, will be sharing her experiences at the Champions for Mental Health dinner being hosted by the Schizophrenia Society of Saskatchewan in Regina on Monday.

Confusing and challenging times

As a child, she remembers her mother displaying erratic behaviour linked to an undiagnosed mental illness.

She recalls her mom having mood swings that made her "desperately unhappy one moment, electrically happy the next.

"One day she would be sitting on a sofa, drinking wine — my mom was also a drinker," said Laumann.

"The next day she would be crying and sometimes at night, in the middle of the night, throwing plates and breaking dishes and screaming." 

Although she also recalls it being a home with a lot of love, she said she never quite knew what she was going home to on any given day.

The tension in the home was so high, she recalls, that her brother sometimes slept with a knife under his pillow.

"When my mom was desperately unhappy, she would threaten to turn on the gas and kill us all while we were sleeping," said Laumann.

"And I think, although she never acted on that, and I don't think she ever really would have done that, I think it created a tension and a possibility."

As a teenager, Laumann developed anorexia and has also suffered from anxiety and depression.

Finding the strength to speak out

She said she's able to speak about her experiences now because she has healed enough to find a "place of peace."

Laumann added that writing her book, Unsinkable, was a "liberating" experience that took away her fear of talking about mental illness in her life.

She now sees her childhood as a source of strength and determination that helped her succeed as an elite athlete.  

Laumann wants to normalize the conversation about mental health by speaking at events like the Champions for Mental Health dinner.

"It's such an important part of my life now and it has allowed me to be authentically who I am," she said.

"I guess I felt like I was hiding something before."

The Champions for Mental Health dinner will be held at the Conexus Arts Centre in Regina on Monday, March 6 at 5 p.m. CST.