By: Sadiya Ansari Staff Reporter, Published on Sun Jan 25 2015
The Toronto Star
When Olympian Clara Hughes agreed to speak publicly for the first time in 2010 about her experience with depression, she wasn’t sure anyone would care. But one of the people closest to Hughes didn’t know about her struggle more than 10 years after she sought help.
“My mother found out on TV,” said Hughes, 42.
Hughes, one of few athletes who have competed in both the summer and Winter Olympics, became a spokesperson for Bell in 2010, when the company announced it was committing $50 million to mental health initiatives.
“I had such a hard time with it that I didn’t talk to her for three months after the campaign because I felt so bad that I hadn’t told her,” said Hughes, who’ll be in Toronto on Tuesday for a screening of a documentary about her epic 2010 cycling journey to raise the problem’s profile.
A history of mental illness in her family is what kept Hughes from sharing her diagnosis with her mother. Hughes’ sister suffered from bipolar disorder and depression while her father struggled with addiction. With her mother was trying to manage it all, Hughes said she didn’t want to be a burden.
While training as a cyclist in the mid-1990s, Hughes started to sink into depression, although she didn’t call it that at the time.
“No matter what I won, I still had this void and darkness and often times feelings of self-loathing and worthlessness inside,” she said.
Even after bringing home two bronze medals from the Atlanta summer games in 1996, the feelings persisted and Hughes spiralled into depression for the next two years. At a training camp the winter after returning from Atlanta, a national team doctor talked to Hughes about depression and suggested ways to get help.
“I walked out the meeting thinking, you’re not going to tell me what’s wrong with me, there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m a great athlete, I’ll get through this — I’ll just train harder,” she said.
But the reality was she couldn’t focus — barely able to race her bike and crashing it when she did.
“I was in such a fog,” said Hughes.
When she finally sought support, it was there for her but she realizes not everyone is so lucky. That’s why she decided to speak up about her own struggle after hearing that Bell, a sponsor for many years, was launching a charitable campaign focusing on mental illness in 2010.
She hopes having more public figures come forward with their experiences with mental illness will help more “real people” share their stories.
Last year, Hughes completed a cycling journey spanning 110 days and covering more than 11,000 kilometres across Canada to bring more attention to the issue. The documentary on the ride, Clara’s Big Ride, will be aired on CTV on Bell Let’s Talk day, on Wednesday.
One day of the year, Bell adds five cents to existing funds dedicated to mental illness programs for every text message and mobile and long distance call made by Bell customers. A year after its launch, the company included social media as part of the campaign to let those who didn’t have Bell phones participate.
Since the first Let’s Talk day in 2011, $17.5 million has been added to the pot, totalling a $67.5 million commitment from Bell.
“Mental health as a sector has been, I believe, underfunded systematically forever,” said chair of the initiative, Mary Deacon.
Bell has spent about $10 million a year of that money supporting over 250 organizations across the country — from psychiatric units in hospitals to community-based programs, according to Deacon.
Dismantling stigma is high on her agenda.
“The more we talk as individuals and communities, the more this will become a priority issue for action,” Deacon said.
But talking is not always as easy as it seems, even for Olympians. Hughes said when she finally faced her mother, she simply asked Hughes why she didn’t tell her before.
“One of the biggest regrets that I have is not talking to my mom about it and letting her support me,” said Hughes.