Tuesday, September 10th 2019 is World Suicide Prevention Day.
You may be questioning why this is a topic of discussion on GXunited. And truth-be-told, 5-years ago I probably would have asked the exact same thing. But life happens, and in 2015 my husbands close friend died from depression and suicide. It was during a point in life when things were really tough for me (read my story of overtraining – part 4), and it hit me really hard.
Up to that point I’d always discussed wellness around the physical body (exercise, nutrition, health conditions, smoking cessation, etc). I went to yoga classes, but had a hard time making the mental connections to the movements, and thus only experienced the physical benefits. I taught yoga classes from a very physical place. I really struggled to find that emotional connection and experience.
And then everything changed…
Between 2014 to 2015 I was dealing with a ton of health challenges, and 3-months after Dennis died I ended up in the hospital having 2 very different surgeries within 10-days of each other. I was struggling with my own identity in the fitness space; and at points I understood what it meant to truly be depressed. While I never thought about ending my own life, there were flashes and moments in time when I didn’t know what the light at the end of the tunnel looked like and it got really hard.
My husband and I learned more about Project Semicolon and got tattoos to honor Dennis and remember to always share the message. The message is simple – a semicolon marks a place in a sentence where an author chooses to pause instead of stop. The semicolon is our reminder to pause and not stop on life.
So life changed even more…
Eventually I started going to yoga classes and embracing the mental challenges the instructors provided. I found myself starting to let go of traumas and challenges that I had experienced over the years simply through powerful movement experiences. I even found myself crying in classes as instructors really broke down my walls and pushed me to extreme mental places.
By 2016 I knew I had a bigger mission in life than simply teaching a group fitness class and getting people to reach max heart rates. I started to recognize that I could use my platform (fitness) to speak to the impacts of mental health, depression, anxiety, exercise addiction, overtraining syndrome, and suicide.
I finally felt it was time to put my sport psychology masters degree to use, and connect with all 9-dimensions of wellness.
But I didn’t know how…
Coming from a very physical mindset, I didn’t exactly know how to bridge the discussion between physical and mental wellness. I felt challenged to create emotional connections and allow people the opportunity to connect with themselves in a way that felt authentic. Especially because I knew I wanted to do this in classes outside the yoga studio.
So I dug deep. I thought about how I could honor Dennis and help bring awareness to topics that are taboo in our society. I realized that many before me had created conversations and sparked emotions using music. And at that point I knew I had my gateway.
By using music I could allow the songs to speak in ways that I might not be able to. Eventually I could bridge the gap between songs speaking and my speaking. And with time, I hoped that I could feel confident speaking directly about mental health and suicide.
I found a way to create a Project Semicolon Themed Class…
The first time I walked into class with a “Project Semicolon” playlist I was scared shitless. I didn’t know how my participants would respond. I didn’t know if I would get fired from my gym for mentioning suicide. And frankly, I didn’t know how to bring it up without breaking into tears.
In March 2016 I did it. I created a plan and (quite nervously) took it into my regular cycle class.
I created a playlist inspired by artists who had died too young, songs about depression, suicide, or feeling helpless, and songs about overcoming obstacles.
I created a class plan in which the first 2/3 was really difficult; songs reflected more of the challenges of mental health and suicide; my coaching focused on the challenges of the ride. The last 1/3 of class I opened up the ride; we experienced opportunities to be ourselves; songs became more cheerful, and I talked about how we all face challenges in life and it’s how we respond that makes an impact.
I had a plan…but delivering it was the next scary step…
I knew I didn’t want to turn people away at the start by telling them my theme upfront. Instead, I started class out by simply saying “today I have a theme that is a bit different. I want you to listen to the music, pay attention to my coaching, and consider what you think the theme to be.” And then we rode.
Throughout class I gave coaching cues that sparked emotion. I challenged people to dig within themselves, and I encouraged people to be okay with the tough moments. I didn’t specifically say ‘mental health, depression, or suicide’, instead I let the music speak for itself.
It wasn’t until the cool-down that I pulled back the layers of the playlist and explained the connection to mental health, talked about my Project Semicolon tattoo, and broke down the layers of discussing mental health.
I was shocked by the response. People were truly grateful for my sharing the story. People asked me more about my tattoo, or shared personal stories of friends who may have died from suicide. I was overwhelmed with gratitude in the moment.
Since then I’ve made it my goal to honor and remember Dennis at least once a year through my “Project Semicolon” classes.
My 2019 Classes
Every year my coaching on this topic gets better. I become more comfortable talking about suicide, and I find new ways to script a powerful workout experience.
I’ve continued my Project Semicolon cycle rides, and taken the topic into yoga (a natural fit), but for this year I’m being brave and bringing the topic into my barre class.
The same fears and insecurities were there as I created a much more mellow barre workout experience. My playlist includes slower songs than normal, and my workout includes lots of level changes, and moments when we are very hunched in (a lower power position) and moments of expansion and openness. My script includes coaching segments that are more mellow than my normal personality, and spoke more to the emotional side of the workout than the physical.
On Monday, September 9th I taught this barre workout. I didn’t know how my participants would respond. But I started with the same introduction as above….allowed the music to speak throughout…and at the end finished with my same connection to mental health and suicide.
It was during those final 3-minutes of the cool-down that I mentioned Dennis (our friend who died from suicide in 2015), discussed my tattoo (Project Semicolon) and shared insight into the idea that we all struggle in life. That mental health is something we shouldn’t be ashamed to discuss, and encouraged people to do 1 thing to bring awareness to the topic (something as simple as changing your language from “committed suicide” to “died from suicide” is a huge movement in the discussion of suicide.
Many participants come up to me at the end and told me how difficult the workout was, and many responded that they appreciated the mental health connection.
Was the choreography harder than normal – NO. But I forced them to dig within themselves, which in turn made the experience harder for them. Emotions can create change and challenge that many people aren’t even aware of.
I am forever grateful to each student who comes to my class and allows me to discuss this difficult subject. I’m even more honored to hear the stories and have them spread the word about suicide awareness to their friends and family.
If I can get just one person in my class to rethink the conversation around mental health, then I feel I have used my platform of fitness to promote awareness to a subject that is otherwise taboo.
What can you do?
What topics are near and dear to your heart but may be a little taboo? How can you use your platform to bring out topics that may be uncomfortable or tricky for some? Don’t be afraid to speak up and use fitness as a way to bring awareness and start a conversation – because we know that conversations need to be had.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.
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BS: Exercise & Sports Science
NSCA: Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS)
ACSM: Certified Exercise Physiologist (EP-C)
Yoga Alliance: 200-hr RYT
ACE: Group Fitness Instructor
Balanced Body: Reformer Level 1 Coach
Schwinn: Indoor Cycle Instructor
RRCA: Running Coach