Olympian, Humanitarian and Motivator Clara Hughes is as beautiful and captivating in person as she is on television. Her smile is just so infectious that you cannot help but be charmed. More importantly, her passion shines through. She was a passionate athlete and now she is a passionate advocate for a better mental healthcare system.
On Monday, March 24, I joined more than 500 local residents to welcome Clara to Kingston as she rides 12,000 kilometres around Canada talking about breaking the stigma surrounding mental health. Kingston was Day 10 on the ride, which will end after 110 days on the road, on Canada Day in Ottawa. Before then, Clara and her team will have “rolled in to” 95 communities, large and small, and Clara will have spoken to thousands of Canadians at more than 200 community events. The event in Kingston also featured presentations and discussions by local mental health advocates and was a fundraiser to support research into depression by Dr. Roumen Milev at our Providence Care hospital.
When I’d heard several weeks ago that Clara was going to be in Kingston I immediately purchased a ticket to the event being sponsored by the University Hospitals Kingston Foundation (UHKF). I also requested an interview through the UHKF’s marketing director Julie White, but it was only a few hours before the event that I received confirmation from Jennifer Duncan, a public relations consultant travelling with Clara, that I would indeed have a few minutes with her before she spoke to the group. Thrilled doesn’t even begin to describe my emotions.
When it came time to meet her, Jennifer Lester-Mulridge from our local television station, CKWS, and I were taken to meet Clara. (I’m not sure why we were the only two media people there.) I listened in while Jennifer asked her questions.
Now it was my turn. I calmed my nerves and asked Clara,
“How did you help your family understand what you’re going through, to understand the difference between depression and just having a bad time?”
“My family understands mental illness,” she said. She went on to explain that her father suffered from an undiagnosed depression that led him to a life-long, and tragically life-ending, problem with alcoholism, and that her sister has suffered with bi-polar disease for 23 years. Even though she knew her mother would understand, Clara said that she didn’t want to “burden my mom, so it took me almost 14 years to tell her what I’d gone through.”
I then asked “How can someone who doesn’t have that experience with mental health can be helped to understand the issues?”
“You just have to tell them–tell them that it can happen to anyone at any time and that it is not a sign of weakness. I felt [at the time] it was a weakness inside me, but I have many strengths too, and I am just as proud of the work I’ve done to get over the depression as I am of any medal I’ve won or any race in which I’ve competed. I don’t see it as a weakness anymore, but as another strength I have.” (For the record, Clara has won six Olympic medals in both cycling (Summer games) and speed skating (Winter games) and she has competed in countless other races at all levels.)
Then it was time for her to do what she’d come to do: tell her story and share other stories that she’s heard at other events.
She was greeted with a standing ovation, which moved her. She was also moved by how many people had come out to the event. Her talk was only about 10 minutes, but it was mesmerizing. She told us about the student rally in Peterborough, where she’d started that morning and ridden 182 kilometres to Kingston—in –12 degree weather—not counting the wind chill. (It was a little warmer when she arrived in Kingston, but not much.) She joked how her lunch of tuna melts, smoothies, and hot tea—food she would not normally eat during training—tasted so good because of the cold weather, but that it upset her stomach later.
Clara said that since joining the “Bell Let’s Talk” campaign, she has become the “face of mental health.”
“But I’m not,” she said. “Mine is not the reality that so many people are facing. I was told that I would not lose my funding, my national team status. I was told that the best care could be arranged for me and that I should just go and do what I needed to do to get healthy, and then I could come back.” [This was after she’d won two Olympic medals and the coaches wanted her to continue her racing career.]
“That is not the reality that members of my family faced, nor is it the reality that most Canadians face.”
The centre where Clara’s sister received treatment in Winnipeg has an 85% success rate but only has enough funding to treat 80 people.
“ Manitoba is losing home-trained psychiatrists because they are told to leave the province and get experience—but our local hospital does not have a staff psychiatrist.” Then, came what I thought was her most powerful statement:
“We have a system that is not broken because it is not good enough to be broken. We need to be better, and I am willing to ride through the bones of my feet to make this point.”
Clara expressed her gratitude to all of the speakers and said that she knows that there are many people trying to make the system better. She challenged everyone to keep fighting that good fight.
“It starts with all of us. We can reach out—talk—and listen.”
Click here to find out if Clara is coming to your area. If she is, go and see her. Listen to her message. You will be, like I am, inspired to continue the conversation.
It was an amazing night, and it will rank as one of my best experiences as an independent writer. Thanks again to Julie White and Jennifer Duncan for making it happen.