Olympian comes to Labrador to raise mental health awareness
© Bonnies Learning/special to The Labradorian
Clara Hughes shows the enthusiastic crowd at the College of the North Atlantic her six Olympic medals as she spoke about her own personal mental health issues and the need for more open communication about mental health.
It's not every day an Olympic athlete makes an appearance in Labrador, but for one of Canada's most decorated Olympic athletes, it was more than worth the effort to get here.
Clara Hughes — a six-time competitor in both the summer and winter Olympics — travelled to Happy Valley-Goose Bay April 30, after visiting Nain the day before.
She is currently in the process of completing a 12,000 kilometre, 260-community journey from coast to coast to coast, in her ongoing crusade to bring mental health awareness to the forefront.
The ambitious trek is called “Clara's Big Ride” and began 49 days ago as part of Bell's 'Let's Talk' campaign, of which Hughes has been a spokesperson for the last four years.
“I wanted to help get the conversation going about mental health, about depression, anxiety,” Hughes said to the awed crowd attending a mental health fair at the College of the North Atlantic campus in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
“People suffer in silence; they feel shame, that it's a social taboo.
“But I can stand in front of you here today and tell you, I have felt those things, too.”
Hughes noted although she may be a six-time Olympic medalist, she has fought her own demons as it relates to mental health over many years.
“I grew up in a difficult family situation, with a father who had substance abuse issues,” said Hughes.
“I got lucky; after a lot of years of delinquency — drinking, smoking, drug use — I saw the Olympics for the first time at the age of 13, and I really connected with it. I focused on it. And that focus changed my life for the better. It saved my life.”
Although Hughes said her path in life became much brighter, and she started to rack up the medals, she still had feelings of emptiness and loneliness, no matter how many medals she won.
“I thought if I won more, I would feel better inside,” recalled Hughes.
“I came home with my first two Olympic medals and I felt nothing inside.”
Hughes said two months after her first medal win, she went into a state of depression.
“I couldn't eat or sleep, all I did was cry,” she noted.
“It took me two years to realize that I couldn't get over this depression alone. And why would I think I could get through this alone?”
Hughes said she finally accepted help for her depression and after 23 years spent in sports, said the most important lesson she learned was sharing the struggle with mental health issues.
“I was given the chance to talk about the struggles,” she said. “After I retired from sports after the London Olympics in 2012, I wondered what more I could do for this crucial conversation, a conversation that needs to keep going.
“That's when I dreamt of this big ride. I pitched it to Bell and they bought it as did all the corporate sponsors, so that we could travel across eastern and northern Canada to talk about (mental health).”
Hughes said one of the highlights of her travels so far was her trek to Nain, where over half of the community showed up at the airport to meet her.
“They had a bike bolted onto a komatik, so I literally 'biked' one kilometre in Nain,” laughed Hughes.
“It blew my mind. The kids were running beside me. It really lifted my spirits.”
Hughes said through her journey, many people come out to tell their own personal stories of mental health.
“I think the most important thing and most underestimated thing, is just listening,” she said. “Just listen to someone who might be struggling.”
Before Hughes headed off to another engagement, she presented some Bell shirts to the organizers of the mental health fair, as well as to Happy Valley-Goose Bay Mayor Jamie Snook.
“Your mayor is the fittest mayor I have ever met,” Hughes smiled.
Mayor Snook said as a town, Happy Valley-Goose Bay is currently on its own path to health and wellness.
“We're honoured to have Clara include us in her big ride. It inspires us to keep going, keep moving forward and show us what's possible.”
Hughes said the 12,000 km ride will end on Canada Day in Ontario.
“Educate yourself. Find out what services are available to help you in your community. Mental health matters to all Canadians.”