Fitness Trainer Karena Dawn Launches Mental Health Organization in Honor of Her Late Mother

"We are here to break the stigma," says the wellness entrepreneur of her new charity and content platform, The Big Silence Foundation

Karena Dawn
Photo: Courtesy Karena Dawn

Karena Dawn doesn't shy away from hard conversations.

The co-founder of Tone It Up is launching a new charitable organization, The Big Silence, to normalize discussions about mental health issues.

"I've been wanting to create a foundation and a resource for many years," says Dawn, who was just 12 years old when her mom was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and depression.

"[My mom] was in and out of the house many times, from being a missing person to being in the hospital," Dawn tells PEOPLE exclusively. "And it was in the '90s, so no one was talking about mental health."

As a teenager, Dawn tried to research mental illness and schizophrenia at the library. "There were no resources out there for me to lean on," she recalls. "It kind of sent me in a spiral of my own situational depression, drug abuse, suicide attempt and losing a lot of friends because no one around me was talking about it."

Karena Dawn
Karena Dawn (left) with mother Linda Joy Tompkins and sister Rachel Sahaidachny. Courtesy Karena Dawn

That's why she believes so strongly in offering support for those who are struggling. "There's a stigma around mental health," says the NYT bestselling author. "That is what The Big Silence is: It's the thing you don't want to talk about. At The Big Silence, we are here to break the silence."

The content platform, which she leads with her sister Rachel Sahaidachny as executive director, is dedicated to normalizing conversations around mental health through online and social content, as well as a podcast hosted by Dawn.

"Because of my mom's mental illness, I went through a really dark period — from about 12 years old until about 22," she says. "I was at a breaking point."

She found light again by focusing on fitness. "I was on a three-day bender and was thinking back about when I was my happiest," she says. "It was when I was running, and I was active and I was working out."

"At that time I thought, in my own depression, that I was going to end up like my mom, so I didn't believe in myself." But she decided to do something positive and signed up for a triathalon. "I trained my butt off and did the race," she says. "I crossed the finish line, like 'Wow, like I accomplished something.' "

From then on, she says, she wanted to teach people that movement is medicine, which led to her co-founding Tone It Up in 2009 and further dedicating herself to not only her physical health but her mental health as well, through self-help books, therapy and meditation.

Karena Dawn
Courtesy Karena Dawn

These days Dawn continues to prioritize her wellness and mental well-being. She creates a gratitude list in the morning and at night.

"At night I think it's really important to reflect on what you did accomplish today," she says. "A lot of people are so stressed out right now and it's little things that matter which you should celebrate: You woke up and you made your bed, you ate healthy, you moved your body, you meditated, you made your work calls, you took a shower. These are all big accomplishments, so at night, just reflect on everything you did do versus being stuck in your head thinking about what you didn't do."

Dawn's mother passed away in September 2021. Before she died, Dawn recalls her mother not wanting her daughter to be so public about mental health struggles. "She would say, 'There's a stigma around it,' and I would say, 'Well Mom, I want to break the stigma.' "

And she will.

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