‘There’s still a stigma’: Program launched to help Atlantic paddlers with mental health

Nova Scotia paddler Bret Himmelman knows what it is to struggle with mental health while competing in sport.

In his first year with the national men’s canoe/kayak team, Himmelman has obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety.

But he’s hoping to help other paddlers talk about their mental health.

“There’s still a stigma around in our sport,” Himmelman, who competes in canoe, said in a break from training in Indian Harbour Beach, Fla.

‘We’re trying to do something very specific’

“So we’re trying to do something very specific to our sport, specific to our athletes, because canoe/kayak athletes, we face unique challenges.”

The Canoe Kayak Canada’s Atlantic division has launched a mental-health initiative created by athletes to deal with the pressures of competition and the stresses in the sport.

Emma Davie/CBCEmma Davie/CBC

“It’s something that we’ve identified as a gap within our sport,” said Jake Jeannot of the Atlantic division.

“We don’t have a lot of time to take a step back and evaluate things from a top-down level and see how we can support each other in ways that aren’t just the physical side of things, but really kind of connect on a more emotional level and one-to-one level.”

The hope is to build a board of athletes from paddling clubs around the region to figure out the best ways to offer support.

Strategies and coping mechanisms

When athletes return in the spring, Jeannot said it is hoped to arrange for monthly speakers to share stories, strategies and coping mechanisms.

The organization has also launched a social media mindfulness challenge to encourage athletes to start thinking about their mental health, as well as their physical health.

“The athletes will be the core foundation of all of this,” Jeannot said.

“They’re on the front lines, they’re dealing with these things on an individual level and they’re within the groups, surrounded by each other at all times.”

Didi Fisher WeinrebDidi Fisher Weinreb

Himmelman, from Bedford, N.S., trains at the Maskwa Aquatic Club. He said paddlers are often away from their families, friends and communities for months at a time while they train.

“If we can create a big support group together, people won’t be ashamed of their mental illnesses and if they ever need someone to talk to, we’re trying to create that support system,” he said.

“We’re trying to create a positive environment, not just on the water but off the water.”

Olympic team trials in April

Much of the pressure comes from trying to make it to the Olympics, which will be held this summer in Japan. Himmelman will go to Gainesville, Ga., in April for Olympic team trials.

“A lot of times your comparisons are drawn against each other, or you’re comparing yourself against yourself from former results,” Jeannot said. “You’re always looking for that next leg up on someone else.”

The Atlantic division is also hoping Canoe Kayak Canada, and other sports organizations, will adopt similar practices.

Jeannot said they also hope to explore the mental toll it takes when athletes transition out of sport.