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Diver Molly Carlson encourages youth to speak up ahead of World Mental Health Day

Diver Molly Carlson encourages youth to speak up ahead of World Mental Health Day Article Image 0 Diver Molly Carlson encourages youth to speak up ahead of World Mental Health Day Article Image 0 - The Canadian Press

As qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympics approached, Molly Carlson found herself in a dark place. She was struggling through a binge eating disorder, had body dysmorphia, and was constantly comparing her body to the other athletes on Canada's diving team.

Because Carlson is tall for a diver at five-foot-nine, the sport didn't come naturally to her and she felt that extra pressure while trying to make Canada's Olympic team.

"It was just a lot of self hate and I couldn't open up about it because I thought I was doing what I needed to do to be the best athlete that I could be," said Carlson. "When, at the end of the day, that's absolutely not what I needed.

"I needed to love myself and be proud of who I was and the body I have. And that's where I am now."

Ultimately, Carlson was not selected to Canada's Olympic team but instead of feeling sad or disappointed, she was relieved because she didn't have to carry that pressure anymore.

"I could step out of that stressful situation and get the help that I needed," said Carlson. "That's when I decided to ask for help for the first time."

Carlson is far from alone.

Recent data from Canadian Women & Sport, a non-profit that partners with sport organizations, governments, and leaders to build better sport through gender equity, has found that only 1 in 10 girls feel well equipped to talk about their mental health and well-being.

Carlson arrived at Florida State University for her freshman year shortly after being passed over for the Olympic team. When she arrived at her new school she decided to open up to John Proctor, her new high diving coach, and it was then that her mental health began to improve.

The 25-year-old from Fort Frances, Ont., is now a star on TikTok and readying for another run at qualifying for the Olympics. She has also become an advocate for youth mental health and is partnering with the Coaching Association of Canada to raise awareness ahead of Tuesday's World Mental Health Day.

Carlson recommends that any young person struggling with their mental health should start by becoming inquisitive about their own feelings. For her, that process started with journaling and building a greater understanding of what she needed.

"Until you know it deep down in yourself that you're struggling, then you won't want to get the help, right?" said Carlson. "It needs to come from within first.

"I would recommend that to any young athlete, it's so easy to just talk to yourself about your feelings, ask yourself some questions."

Lorraine Lafreniere, the CEO of the Coaching Association of Canada, said that her organization's hope is that youth and trusted adults start to have more frank conversations with each other. The organization has also created a Mental Health and Sport Resource Hub for coaches and volunteers to better equip the adults involved in sports for when their athletes initiate those conversations or are visibly struggling.

"Just have that conversation, because a lot of people in their teen years are not comfortable talking about mental health necessarily," said Lafreniere. "This is just our attempt to continue to help get that going even further."

Carlson said that when she approached Proctor with her mental health concerns the best thing he did was just listen to her, not immediately give directions on how to fix things. Alex Hodgins, a mental performance consultant with the Vancouver Canucks and Vancouver Whitecaps, said that Proctor's approach was ideal and that it's the format that any youth coach should follow when trying to help one of their charges.

"Be a listener, not a speaker," said Hodgins. "I think that's often the first thing that needed for some of these young athletes and young women: just somebody to listen, because they've probably been mulling over these thoughts in their head for quite some time.

"Then the most important thing is the coaches have to know where to direct that athlete. Unless they are a clinical psychologist or certified counsellor, they're probably not qualified to meet the needs of that athlete."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 9, 2023.