Mental Illness Awareness Week: UBC swimmer sheds stigma of depression

When UBC Thunderbirds swimmer Emily Overholt won a bronze medal after competing in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, she should have felt like she was on top of the world. Instead, she faced debilitating depression.

Emily Overholt, an Olympic bronze medallist in swimming and third-year kinesiology student at UBC, credits her recovery from depression with learning how to recognize the symptoms of the mood disorder.

When UBC Thunderbirds swimmer Emily Overholt won a bronze medal after competing in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, she should have felt like she was on top of the world.

Rio was an Olympic debut that put Overholt on the world stage and established her as one of Canada’s strongest and most promising swimming talents. Instead, she faced debilitating depression.

“I think being at the Olympics was a distraction,” she says, reflecting on that time. “It was such a high. I put the depression to one side and just buried it.”

Emily Overholt

The 21-year-old had experienced depression during training but she pushed it down. Eventually, the symptoms became impossible to ignore and Overholt ended up in hospital.

Today, Overholt—a third-year kinesiology student at UBC—is back in school and back swimming again in another Olympic year. She credits her progress to an understanding of the signs and symptoms of mental illness, how to maintain her mental health and how to seek help.

“Since I’ve been through it before, I know what to expect,” she says. “I’m talking to the right people and I’m taking it one day at a time.”

Overholt is sharing her story to help shed the stigma around mental illness during Mental Illness Awareness Week, taking place Oct. 6-12. She is encouraging others in the UBC campus community to share their experiences, enhance their mental health literacy, and to learn about the mental health supports and services available at UBC and in the community.

“We have a wide range of mental health supports and services here on campus, but supporting mental health at UBC goes beyond providing services. We are working hard to build skills in our community so everyone here can live well in supportive environments,” said Patty Hambler, director of health promotion and education at UBC.

“We are working to consider mental health in our policies, practices and how we interact with one another so we can create a campus culture where mental health is discussed openly and without stigma. For students, faculty and staff, knowing how to recognize mental illness and where to find information and support services that can help is key to improving the overall wellbeing of the campus community.”

Oct. 10 at the UBC Life Building will be a chance for students, faculty and staff to learn more about mental health services at UBC. Wellness Peers and nurses will be on hand to walk through key on-campus and off-campus resources, share opportunities to learn practical skills – including Mental Health First Aid and QPR (question/persuade/refer suicide intervention), and let everyone know how to get involved in Thrive, which will happen throughout the month of November on both UBC campuses.

For Overholt, mental illness was “huge and scary” before she began speaking publicly about it and enhanced her understanding of mental health literacy.

“Being open to talk about it has been really important to me,” she says. “It affects so many people and it’s so common. Be educated on the topic. Be open and supportive. Understand that no matter how serious it is, whatever the illness is, those with it are still the same people underneath.”

If you or someone you know is suffering from mental illness, there are many resources available – reach out to get help or to help someone else. Call 9-1-1 for mental health emergencies. In BC, anyone can visit for information and resources. UBC students on both campuses can access a range of services: (Okanagan) and (Vancouver).