According to Mental Health America, roughly 18 percent of adults in America grapple with some form of mental illness. For many of us, jiu-jitsu is the outlet through which we exorcize these demons. We’ve all heard the phrase “jiu-jitsu saved my life” more times than we can count. Nicole Blanchette and “The Anna Ellis Project: Recovery Through Rolling” aim to use jiu-jitsu as a therapeutic healing tool to assist patients in a mental health setting to celebrate the capabilities of their minds and bodies while creating a unified sense of community as a way to aid in recovery.
Nicole began training Muay Thai in 2010, and at the time, she only dabbled in jiu-jitsu. But in 2012, she sustained a serious double hip injury that required surgery, and she was no longer allowed to participate in Muay Thai. It was at that time that she decided to focus on training jiu-jitsu. She received her blue belt in 2015 from Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro in 2015 and is currently a full-time student working to obtain a doctorate of education for clinical mental health counseling with a specialization in sports and performance psychology at University of Western States.
The inspiration for this project comes from Nicole’s experience in a psychiatric ward after a suicide attempt at age 17. The name is an ode to two individuals Nicole met when she was at her lowest point. “Anna” was a young woman in a psychiatric ward whose friendship Nicole credits with helping through her time there, and Ellis was Nicole’s soft-spoken, well-dressed psychologist of ten years that she describes as “an idyllic grandfather” who made her feel safe and helped her flourish in her time of need.
After her time in the psychiatric ward, Nicole continued to struggle with her mental health in spite of consistent therapy and treatments. It wasn’t until she began training jiu-jitsu that she found an outlet to positively affect her mental health. She admits that she still struggles at times, but they have become less frequent, and jiu-jitsu has been monumental in helping regulate her mood and improve her wellbeing. She hopes to use her experiences to help others who are struggling with similar issues.
The Anna Ellis Project is set to start in January, and through jiu-jitsu training, Nicole believes that she can help decrease anxiety and levels of depression in participants. The participants will be learning jiu-jitsu as a therapy tool, and Nicole plans to screen them to determine the best candidates by trying to avoid those who display overtly violent tendencies. This project hopes to add a scientific backbone to what many of us in the jiu-jitsu community already know: training and being part of a community has countless positive physical and mental effects that go a long way towards coping with these issues.
Even though the evidence is mostly anecdotal, this project hopes to shed more light on the stigma of mental illness to bring the benefits of jiu-jitsu to those who might not have otherwise found it. Currently, Nicole is funding this project herself using her savings account for any costs she incurs. She’s currently looking for donations of either money, rash guards, sponsorship, or collaboration. This could include sharing personal stories of overcoming mental health issues through BJJ, collaborating to host a mental health event, or volunteering to teach a seminar for the participants of this program. Just like jiu-jitsu, recovery can be difficult, and it’s important to establish a strong support system to ensure success.
If you or someone you know is suffering from a mental health issue, it’s important to know that you’re not alone and that there are resources out there if you need to talk to someone. Jiu-jitsu isn’t the only path to successful recovery, but it is an option that has helped many people overcome life’s challenges.