When Sasha Wolff discovered the benefits of running for mental health, she wanted to connect with others who did the same thing. She couldn’t find an existing group, so she created her own, Still I Run. What began as a Facebook page and website is now a non-profit charity and a community of runners over 16,000 strong.
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“The biggest stat out there is one in five Americans will be diagnosed every single year with a mental illness.”
That statistic is from before 2020, and the number has almost certainly risen during the Covid 19 pandemic. Even if you’re not affected, the odds are that you know somebody who is. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. “Mental illness doesn’t care where you are in life,” Sasha says. “It doesn’t care how happy you are. It just happens. It’s like when you get a cold out of the blue or you break your leg unexpectedly, or you have a heart attack. You don’t plan for those things, they just happen.”
“Once I finally started taking that proactive approach, that’s when things started to get better for me.”
When Sasha was first diagnosed with depression, she was given a prescription for Prozac and sent on her way. That didn’t work, and since then she’s learned the necessity of proactively managing mental health. She has three tools in her mental health toolbox: running, medication, and therapy. The slogan “running is therapy” is popular, but as she explains, “at Still I Run, we believe that running is therapeutic. It’s not actually therapy; it doesn’t take the place of medication to replace the chemicals that your brain isn’t producing. It isn’t talk therapy, a cognitive behavioral therapy, but it is something that is therapeutic and can help you out.”
“I’m hoping that this conversation really explodes into something bigger because we need the support system now.”
Alexi Pappas was one of the first professional athletes to discuss mental health. Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka raised awareness further when they stepped away from competition this year. Sasha applauds them: “I think when you have voices like that come forward, it inspires others to come forward, which is why I’ve decided to be vulnerable about my own story because you hope it at least helps one other person.”
“It does kind of help you feel like you’re part of something larger than yourself.”
Still I Run offers several programs that provide support to runners. Run.Write.Fight. is a peer-to-peer letter writing campaign. If you or someone you know could use some words of encouragement, a team member at Still I Run will send you – old school, through the mail – a personalized letter to let you know that they’re there for you.
The Starting Line Scholarship helps people overcome the barriers they may have to running. When someone is awarded a scholarship, they get a pair of Altra running shoes, running clothes and goodies from sponsors, one-on-one training from a certified coach, and entry into a 5K or 10K. “So our hope,” Sasha says, “is that by awarding this scholarship, we’re giving you all the tools that you need to get started with this lifelong habit of running for mental health.”
“Lead with empathy.”
Sasha realizes that “it’s really hard to understand mental illness because it’s not something you can see. It’s not something you can really understand unless you talk to someone who may have a mental health disorder.” The best thing that you can do if you know someone with a mental illness is to be empathetic. If you’re struggling yourself, know that you’re not alone.
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“Thank you” to Sasha. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the show.