Olympian Clara Hughes brings message here on mental illness
Only a few weeks after winning her first Olympic medal, Clara Hughes fell into a deep and debilitating depression.
That was 18 years ago.
After many years of ignoring the symptoms and suffering alone, Hughes decided to get some help and seek professional and medical treatment and her life of misery has turned into a life filled with wonder, excitement, Olympic glory and success.
Encouraging people who suffer from various forms of mental illness and urging them to seek help has become her passion since retiring from competitive athletics, said the Canadian Olympic hero during her visit to Osoyoos last week.
As part of Clara’s Big Ride, which will see the six-time Olympic medalist cycle 12,000 kilometres in 110 days, Hughes cycled into Osoyoos in front of about 110 adoring fans at the Sonora Community Centre last Thursday evening.
Hughes told the audience how her battle with chronic depression started shortly after winning two bronze medals in cycling at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games.
“I was in a severe state of depression two months after winning two Olympic medals.”
What was supposed to be the best time of her life quickly turned into the worst, she said.
She grew up in a family where mental illness wasn’t foreign as her father and sister both suffered from depression and mental illness and she didn’t want to discuss her own problems with her mother, who was already carrying a heavy burden, said Hughes.
The stigma surrounding mental illness still remains, but was much worse 18 years ago and she didn’t know what to do or who to talk to about her severe depression.
“People often don’t know what to do and people think that they will get better and get over it, but that’s not how it works,” said Hughes.
Early detection and treatment remains crucial to overcoming depression and many other mental health issues, she said.
Canadian rock star Serena Ryder and well-known CBC broadcaster Shelagh Rogers have, like her, both spoken publicly about their own battles with severe and chronic depression, she said.
“There are people all over doing amazing things who are living with and overcoming mental illness,” she said.
While she remains extremely proud of being the most decorated Canadian female Olympic athlete in history, Hughes said being able to help and inspire others who suffer from mental illness is equally important to her.
“Winning those medals represent moments of joy … and the rapture of being alive,” she said. “Being in the top three in the world and being able to share those experiences with people is something I’m very proud of … but the biggest thing for me is being able to share my struggles and help other people.”
During every stop on Clara’s Big Ride, Hughes urges people to seek treatment and counselling and not be afraid to talk about their illness.
“We need to open the conversation with young Canadians … and let them know there are resources and counselling and programs out there to help you.”
Hughes also told the audience how important physical fitness and being active are in recovering from depression and other forms of mental illness.
“For me, movement is fully and completely my medicine,” she said. “Movement and being active is something I will practice for the rest of my life and something I practice every day. It is my medicine.”
Hughes is scheduled to complete Clara’s Big Ride on Canada Day in Ottawa. Her message about getting help and talking about mental illness will remain part of her daily message to Canadians.
“Mental illness is something we’re just beginning to understand,” she said. “We have created this stigma that we should feel shame and we should feel guilt and hopelessness because someone is sick.
“This has to change.”
Mayor Stu Wells thanked Hughes for making such a big difference in the lives of so many Canadians, inspiring them with her message of hope and taking the time to share her message with Osoyoos residents.
One in five Canadians has or will suffer from a mental health issue in their lifetime and you can’t have a wonderful community without offering services to those in need, said Wells.
“This issue has been in the closet and this ride is about bringing this issue out of the closet,” he said. “It’s an issue that affects us all.”