Clara Hughes doesn’t shy away from showing off her accomplishments.
The four-time Olympian impressed a packed house Wednesday night (Oct. 24) at Orangeville District Secondary School (ODSS) with a satchel full of medals she’s collected throughout her years as an Olympic athlete.
The crowd held onto its ‘oohs and aws’ as she showcased the handful of hardware, but some couldn’t hold back the tears as they applauded Hughes for her courage.
The 40-year-old may be one of Canada’s greatest Olympians — tallying six medals from both the summer and winter games — but it’s the fact Hughes openly talks about being one-in-five Canadians that suffer from mental illness in their lifetime that had the audience soaking its sleeves.
“We have been conditioned that we should be ashamed to have any shape or form of mental illness,” she said afterward. “That’s been my main goal … to help start a conversation in Canada.”
During Hughes presentation, she illustrated her time spent as a reckless teen growing up in the snowy plains of Manitoba, to witnessing Gaetan Boucher at the 1988 Winter Olympics, which inspired her to strap on the speed skates.
She stood front and centre on stage, spilling her guts to the crowd of onlookers as she explained the experience of winning her first two Olympic medals in Atlanta in 1996.
“This is happiness,” she said she thought at the time. “I couldn’t wait for the next Olympics. I wanted it to be the next month, because I wanted to win the darn thing.”
She went from claiming two bronze medals at her first Olympic outing to believing that winning was all an athlete needed to feel fulfilled. As the months progressed, and her Olympic wins faded farther into the past, Hughes said her happiness and feelings of self-fulfillment faded too.
“I was alone at night, not feeling so happy. Not feeling so filled with joy,” she said. “As the weeks went by, and the months went by, that joy turned to darkness and I was left all alone each night with a two-year contract with a professional team … and two Olympic medals and I felt like nothing.”
Was it that she was an athlete utterly over trained, left to sit and rot in her own exhaustion, she thought at the time?
“I didn’t know what it was,” she said. “Nobody talked about it. Nobody talked about being depressed. … When you’re sitting there crying for no reason, and you think you have to fix yourself and you just need to get better and only show people your face when you can make a fake smile. That’s what I felt like.”
Her struggle continued for months, until a national team doctor found her crying in an airport and confronted Hughes about the possibility of her suffering from depression.
“I thought I could fix myself, and I should fix myself, when I was depressed,” she said. “Before that, I didn’t even know I was depressed. It wasn’t until someone intervened and educated me on the matter.”
She pursued professional help, and to this day, carries on with therapy to help shine light on her dark days.
“Depression and mental illness in every single form is different for each person,” she said. “It’s something that I live with and I will live with for the rest of my life.”
Her self awareness led her to making drastic lifestyle changes in the form of eating habits, to her sleeping regime to allow to her to stay more mentally and physically healthy. It’s exercise, however, that she puts at the top of the list of recommended changes one can make on a personal level.
“I’m not talking about sport even, I’m talking about movement,” she said. “Just getting out and moving is so important. It might even be a walk around the block that’s going to change the tone of your day and what’s going on in your head.”
As Hughes fielded questions from the audience following more tales from the summer and winter games, she announced she had donated $5,000 to Allies for Kids’ Mental Health, a new mental health awareness initiative from Dufferin Child and Family Services (DCAFS), which is responsible for Hughes’ appearance in Orangeville.
“She’s an inspiration,” Gloria Campbell, DCAFS manager of child and youth mental health, said. “She’s so articulate and passionate. She really models moving past stigma.”
The new initiative hopes to build awareness and allow those searching for local resources to find comfort knowing answers, and help, may be close to home.
“We did it because there’s a need,” Campbell said of the project. “We know that one-in-five children suffer from a mental health issue. We know that suicide is the second leading cause of death among our youth. … That really prompts us to take action and initiate this project.”
As for Hughes, who has since retired from professional athletics, she encourages youth to form a dialogue amongst one another in order to eliminate the shame often felt when discussing mental health.
“There’s more importance in sharing the struggle,” she said. “Learn to share the struggle … we all have something to give. We have potential to share and support others.
“We all have that power within us.”
For more information on Allies for Kids’ Mental Health, visit DCAFS at dcafs.on.ca.