Leah Pells is three-time Track and Field Olympian, who represented Canada at the Summer Olympics from 1992 to 2000. A silver medalist in the women’s 1500 metres at the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Leah was once ranked first in the world in the 1500 metres. She is also a survivor of mental health issues, overcoming her upbringing in a household of addiction, abuse and poverty to become an accomplished athlete.
Determined to use her experiences to help others, Leah is now a school counsellor and registered clinical counsellor. She tells her incredible story of survival and courage in her book, “Not About the Medal”. We talked to Leah about her difficult upbringing, how the Olympic games helped her overcome her mental health struggles, and how she ran her way to wellness.
When did you begin struggling with your mental health?
Leah: Growing up there was a lot of trauma in my home life. My Mum, who I loved very much, was an alcoholic and that brought a lot of instability and abuse to our home. It was not a safe place.
I was in my early teens when I started to have difficulties sleeping and began to notice different symptoms, which I know today was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I would get startled easily, had panic attacks at school and was terrified of the dark. To this day, I struggle with being in our house alone. I have two dogs who are with me wherever I am in the house.
What inspired you to get into running track and how did it impact your journey towards mental wellness?
Leah: My dad took me to the track as a little girl and I loved seeing kids running around it. This inspired me to join a track club and it was then that my love affair with running began. Running, really saved me. When I felt extremely anxious and sad, I would run and that helped me feel calm. Today I run for the same reasons, to feel well and to connect with myself and nature.
Did you seek any additional support from mental health professionals, family or friends when you were struggling? Please tell us about these experiences.
Leah: When I was attending Simon Fraser University, the health clinic referred me to a psychiatrist. He was the first person to talk with me about the abuse I had witnessed and experienced. I was also self-harming at the time, which I hadn’t revealed to anyone. He saw me weekly for a long time at no cost. I had different counselors over the years after graduating, all of whom were helpful. I had so much to learn about how to care for myself.
Today, as a registered clinical counselor, I still go see a counsellor when I start to feel symptoms of PTSD. For the most part, I feel very well and I can read my body well, so I know when I need a day to myself or when I need to speak to a professional. For me a good regime of exercise, sleep, nutrition and connecting with people helps me feel safe.
What is the most difficult challenge about being an Olympian?
Leah: I would say the biggest barrier is financial. It is very difficult to support oneself as an elite athlete. I also struggled with self-doubt; I was not sure I could do it, and I thought I needed to consider getting a “real” job. But in the end, I followed my heart which led me to finish 4th in the Atlanta Olympics! I am so grateful that I stuck with it, as it was a life-changing moment for me.
You wrote a book called “Not About the Medal.” Tell us more about the inspiration behind this book and why you decided to share your story.
Leah: My book, “Not About the Medal”, is really about surviving developmental trauma and living with an alcoholic mother. It also explores my journey to try to understand addiction. Many people, including my Mum, experience trauma that unravels them; they self-medicate their emotional pain with substances or at times, behavioral addictions. The book is my way to try to come to terms with my childhood, my Mum’s alcoholism and my Olympic journey.
What inspired you to become a School Counsellor and a Registered Clinical Counsellor and how do you help youth today?
Leah: My inspiration was, and is, to help people find their way to be well. I am particularly interested in adolescents, as I struggled so much when I was that age. I love my work. It is my calling and I am 100% doing what I am meant to do. I am very happy and very grateful. We all have a story, and my story has led me to this place of wanting to help people. By helping others, I also continue to help myself.
Your ability to turn hardship into inspiration is quite remarkable. How do you maintain a positive outlook on life?
Leah: I find pleasure in small, daily things. Struggling as a child and young adult gave me the resiliency to find my path. I practice daily gratitude and I try noticing the small things. I accept that some days I will be anxious or sad, and that is okay. I know how to help myself and for that I am extremely grateful.
If there were one message that you could give to someone who is struggling with his or her mental health, what would it be?
Leah: Talk about it. Connect with someone you feel safe with. If you are not able to talk about what you are feeling yet, just be with someone you feel safe with. Eventually the words will come. Once you say how you are feeling or what you are struggling with, it is such a relief. The most healing part of counseling is to share our experience with another human being. Our brain is just one of many organs and when it is not working properly, there is no shame in that; you need to find out how to help it work better.
I also truly believe in the four pillars of wellness: exercise, sleep, good nutrition and connection.
But most importantly, be open and honest about what you are going through. The more we talk about mental health, the more we normalize it, and that makes it much easier to be open to help. You are not alone in this journey. We all struggle at times, some more and some less, but we all struggle at some point in our lives; that is part of being a human being.