Silken Laumann is well-acquainted with the connections that bind physical, mental and spiritual health. And with the launch of Unsinkable, a new storytelling platform, the Canadian champion rower hopes her fellow Canadians will come to see them, too.
The platform – found at weareunsinkable.com – aims to empower and inspire by sharing stories of courage and resiliency, from everyday Canadians, well-known Canadians, Canadian youth and Canadian health experts, explained Laumann, BA’88. And while each story will provide insight on overcoming hardship, the thread that binds them all is a holistic approach to health.
“We hear so much of the negative in our world; we don’t hear enough about how people survive –and not only how they survive, but how they use their life in ways that are transforming and powerful,” said the four-time Olympian.
“Some stories are not necessarily about mental health, the way we think about it; they are about physical adversity. Having been through both in my lifetime, they are intricately related.”
Most Canadians know her story.
Laumann was favoured for gold at the 1992 Summer Olympics when fate dealt a devastating card. In May 1992, Laumann’s shell collided with another, leaving her seriously injured. Looking down, she could see bone and muscle hanging at her ankle. But after five surgeries and three weeks in the hospital, she was back on the water, training by late June. She went on to win the bronze medal in Barcelona – 10 weeks later.
And while the English alumna has always known the power of storytelling, it wasn’t until she shared hers publicly and released a memoir – also titled Unsinkable – that she realized the potential for something bigger.
“People have been telling me their stories for years. After I had my accident at the 1992 Olympics, I’d be in the grocery store and somebody would share their story of overcoming polio, how they didn’t walk until they were 12 but competed in the World Master’s Games. Even back then, I was thinking more people should hear these stories because they’re so inspiring,” Laumann noted.
“When I wrote my book, people shared a whole different level of story with me. Because my memoir was so open and I made myself vulnerable, other people would come to me and share their stories in a way that made them vulnerable. Again, I thought more people should hear these stories. We go through so much adversity and people have so much that they deal with and they do it with courage and tenacity and vision.”
Sharing her mother’s experience with an undiagnosed mental illness in her memoir as well as her own struggles with depression and anxiety likewise opened up a space for Laumann to explore the connection that exists between physical, mental and spiritual health, she explained.
“One thing I was afraid of was getting slotted into a purely mental-health space. That’s not all that I am. This is part of my struggle as a human being, but my whole approach to my health and my mental health has been holistic; it’s been around the physical, the mental, the spiritual and taking care of myself in all of those aspects of my life.”
We need good mental health to survive a physical challenge and we need good physical heath to promote good mental health, Laumann noted.
“I don’t believe you can achieve really strong mental health without having that connection to your body and spirit. When you talk to people who have come to the other side of a really tough encounter with mental illness, they will talk about how they had to get out of the house, exercise, how they learned to breathe and how nutrition affected them. I wanted all of this to exist in one space,” she added.
Including a variety of perspectives and experiences – ranging from that of everyday Canadians to public figures such as Margaret Trudeau – was critical for Unsinkable, Laumann said. Everyone has a story to tell and while the site is launching with 50 stories, she hopes it will continue to grow and be a “vibrant vehicle for people to share more.” She knows there is value and much to learn from sharing lived experiences and adversities.
“The website is where the stories live, but how people engage in the stories, with them, in comments, sharing and the conversations that start will be what brings it alive. I think of it as giving birth to this project, but the project will ultimately not be mine – it will come alive through how our country interacts with this. It forges a community.”
Unsinkable, backed by GoodLife Fitness, is a not-for-profit project that expects collaborations with organizations like The Canadian Mental Health Association, Mood Disorders Canada and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
There will be social media campaigns and opportunities for Canadians to share their stories. Within a year, Laumann hopes expand the site to include a podcast. She is even considering partnering with researchers to study patterns of behaviour that foster resiliency that emerge from stories shared.
“It’s also a desire to move the needle a little bit, to see the connection between the metal and the physical. Right now, we are still at that place that when person has a mental illness, we want to listen and be compassionate. But we’re not necessarily seeing that we are all on a continuum of mental health. None of us are totally mentally healthy; none of us are totally mentally ill. That is a challenge as anything else in your life. It’s about looking at mental health in a more integrated way.”