Anxiety disorder halted her dream to play for Team Canada

Kendra Fisher shares how she bounced back with students at YCDSB Mental Health Symposium

Kendra Fisher was within reach of realizing her dream of goaltending for Team Canada, but had to walk away due to a crippling mental illness, which took courage and perseverance for her to learn how to manage. Fisher recently shared her story of how she battled back against mental illness with high school students at the York Catholic District School Board's Healthy Mind, Health Life Mental Health Symposium, held in Aurora on April 3, 2017.

From Kincardine, Ontario, Kendra was well on her way to a promising hockey career when she started experiencing symptoms of a severe anxiety disorder, panic attacks and agoraphobia. She had moved from her small town to Toronto during high school to further her dream of one day playing for Team Canada. After being in a car accident during her final year in high school she started to experience panic attacks and anxiety, but due to the stigma surrounding mental illness, she kept things to herself and only a few close family and friends knew that she was suffering.

"I'd feel like I was having a heart attack. I was convinced that something horrible would happen to me; that I'd die," Fisher shared with students. "If I was driving with my mother, she couldn't take the highway and I made her drive in the right lane too, so that if something happened, I could get out of the car."

"Everything I knew about mental illness was based on the movies. I knew I wasn't crazy but it was difficult to explain what I was going through. Mental illness isn't like other illnesses such as cancer that people know about and can better understand. So for years I tried to keep my problems to myself, hiding it from my teammates."

In 1999, Fisher went to Calgary to try out for the Canadian Women's Hockey Team, but was unable to join the team, despite being invited to, because of her mental health problems. However, a Team Canada coach put her in touch with a sports psychotherapist, who would spend years helping Fisher learn how to manage her symptoms.

She spent years terrified. She had quit school and her job, could barely eat, was scared to leave home and terrified to sleep. Nonetheless, she persevered. Through a variety of interventions that included medication, deep breathing, physical activity, yoga, mindfulness, healthy eating and cognitive behavioral therapy, she was able lead a full life again. She competed in national hockey tournaments, and played in professional hockey leagues.

It all came to a standstill in 2010, when Fisher learned about the suicide of a 14 year old daughter of a hockey player. With the help of her psychologist, Fisher decided it was time to break her silence and fight the stigma surrounding mental illnesses.

Fisher shared her journey, first as a Facebook post, then she started speaking publicly to help raise awareness about mental illness. Her keynote address at York Catholic's Healthy Mind, Healthy Life Symposium was part of her quest to bring mental health issues to the forefront.

"I liked [Fisher's] presentation," said Krizia Panetta, a Grade 11 student at Father Bressani CHS in Woodbridge who was among the students who attended the symposium. "Mental health struggles are serious. It's not something to joke about."

"If you're having problems, you should talk to someone about them. You might think there's nothing that can help, but that's not true, you just need to find the right kind of help," said classmate Andrea Panetta. "Today's conference has helped me understand how important these issues are, and it helped to clarify the difference between mental health and mental illness.'

Prior to the keynote address by Fisher, students attended breakout sessions with York Region Public Health Nurses, who explained to students that mental health and mental illness are on two different continuums, and that someone can have poor mental health without a mental illness, or have good mental health with a mental illness.

Students attending the symposium also participated in a series of workshops where they practiced healthy coping skills, and learned about things they can do to lead mentally healthy lives. Teachers who act as mental health leads in their schools also attended and discussed ways to better help students.

Ona Stanvicius is the teacher-advisory to her school's mental health council, and a Physical Education Teacher at Father Bressani CHS. During the last couple of minutes of her gym classes Stanvicius teaches 'mindful minutes', where she leads students in a variety of tapping, deep breathing, meditation, or prayer exercises.

"At first some students find it a bit embarrassing or awkward, but after a couple weeks, the students start reminding me that class is almost over and that we need to do the 'mindful minutes'," said Stanvicius. "The feedback I've received from the students is overwhelmingly positive. Some students have told me that they practice it at home or when they feel stressed and that it helps."

The York Catholic District School Board held an additional two mental health symposiums, but for elementary school students on Friday, April 7, 2017, and Monday April 10, 2017. The elementary symposiums followed the same format as the high school symposium, but the keynote speaker was Motivational Speaker, Sara Westbook who spoke to students about making positive choices.