We all know who Clara Hughes is.
She’s one of the darlings of Canadian sport. Her exploits in the Summer and Winter Olympics have made her legendary. Her charity work for organizations such as Right to Play have made her beloved.
But what many of us didn’t know, until recently, is that she has had to battle demons of a very personal kind. Hughes battled deep depression, which threatened to derail her life, after winning two bronze medals in cycling at the 1996 Olympics.
Hughes, as the spokeswoman for Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk initiative, is making her story public to create a better, more open dialogue for Canadians suffering from mental illness.
Before she sat down with Hockey Night in Canada’s Ron MacLean on Saturday, Hughes took some time to tell CBCSports.ca her story.
CBCSports.ca: I’m sure that, for the average Canadian, hearing that Clara Hughes has had to battle depression is more than a little eye-opening. So to start off, just tell us about your experience. What happened?
Hughes: For me personally it was after the ’96 Olympics, which was my first Olympic experience, and a phenomenal experience as an athlete. I went to my first Games and did two [cycling] races and won two bronze medals. …
Coming back to Canada and just feeling the incredible response of a post-Olympic energy — I realized for the first time how much sport can touch people. …
But it was pretty soon after that — after I ended my cycling season after the world championships, that winter — I started having a really hard time, having some serious emotional problems. I was living in Hamilton, Ont., at the time, and as the months rolled by after my season ended I just started feeling really, really bad.
And I thought, ‘You know, it’s probably just post-Olympic letdown that everybody talks about.’ But I just felt like I was spiraling down, down, downwards into this dark place and just was isolating myself a lot from people, because I just didn’t know how to deal with the emotions that I had.
I was still pushing myself really hard in training, because it was pretty much all I knew how to do, and I thought if I didn’t train hard every single day I was lazy — I wasn’t doing my job.
And so it got worse and worse and worse, and by the time December and January rolled around I was literally crying every day and not knowing why, sleeping a tremendous amount, always feeling exhausted, and it was really affecting my training. …
I didn’t know what to do with all these things because I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I just knew something was wrong, but I felt like I should’ve been able to fix it, and there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t fix myself, and I couldn’t make myself better.
CBCSports.ca: So where did you go for help?
Hughes: After that, going through a series of months feeling like that and just getting worse and worse, I went to a national team camp, and that’s when one of the national team doctors met with me for a physical. She just asked me how things were going, and I just started crying.
She said ‘What’s wrong, Clara? You know, you can talk to me about this.’ And I just started telling her how I had been feeling for months at that time, and she just said ‘It sounds like you might be dealing with depression, and a lot of people deal with this, and there are many way you can look for help. … We’re going to get you better, and it’s going to be OK.’
That last point was really important for me, because that was the point where I realized that maybe I didn’t have to try and fix it by myself.
It still took a long time — it took me another year and a half to have the guts to change the way I train and realize that I couldn’t continue to push myself the way I was pushing myself. I needed to find a new way, and I found a new coach and a new program that really helped me get out of it. Essentially, I had the support to get out of it.
CBCSports.ca: What made you want to go public with your struggle?
Hughes: It’s really been completely because of one of my sponsors, Bell Canada, and their mental health initiative. … It was early spring that I found out that they were going to launch this [Let’s Talk] campaign in September, and I immediately asked to be a part of it in any way, shape or form.
Not just because I personally dealt with it. I have so many people close to me that have dealt with far worse situations with depression — with other forms of mental illness — that didn’t get better and are still suffering and struggling and don’t have the help they need.
I just felt like, ‘Maybe if I can talk about this, maybe it’s going to open up some kind of dialogue and make people feel that it’s ok to go through things like this, it’s OK to ask for help, and it’s OK to talk about it.’ It’s not something that you should feel like you have to hide. …
What surprises me is, since talking about this and being involved in this, so many people have come up to me and said ‘I’ve struggled with depression, or I’ve struggled with this.’ And it is often people where you couldn’t believe that they’ve gone through it, just as people look at me and say ‘Really? I can’t believe you actually went through that.’ There’s so many people like me. I’m just one of many — of hundreds of thousands.
So I really have the hope that — I had the hope before our home Olympics that our nation was going to be inspired beyond belief by sport. And I have the same hope for this, that this is going to open up a dialogue that’s going to change the face of mental health in Canada. That is my goal for this, that is why I’m involved. I feel like I have a chance to make an impact that is far greater than sport ever will, in my life anyways.
So I’m really proud to be a part of this, and grateful that I have the experience to share, as difficult as it was. I kind of feel like ‘Wow, that’s why I went through that, is to share it.’
CBCSports.ca: What do you think needs to be done to break the stigma surrounding talking about mental health issues?
Hughes: I think it’s just opening up the dialogue. … I think that’s going to change many people’s lives in terms of getting the help they need. And secondly, it’s not just about breaking down stigma — breaking down those barriers — it’s about creating resources that are readily available for every single Canadian.
I feel like I had those resources as an athlete … that should be the situation for not just athletes in this country, it should be for all Canadians.
CBCSports.ca: What advice would you give to anyone who may be quietly suffering from mental illness?
Hughes: Talk to someone. Absolutely, talk to someone. And if you can’t ask for help yourself, because you just don’t have the strength to, just try to let someone know you need help, and you need their help to find the help that you need.
And also, I encourage not just people who are struggling, but the people around the people who are struggling — the friends, the family, the professionals, the colleagues. If you see someone having a hard time and it’s not just, you know, one day — it’s a day that turns into a week, turns into a month — help that person out, help them find the help that they need.
But it goes to the support. The resources need to be more readily available and clearly laid out as to what they are, where they are and how to access them. This isn’t just about stigma, it’s on many different levels. It’s a major issue in Canada … I want the help I had available to me — the support that allowed me to get through that and go on to do some really, pretty incredible things in my life that I continue to pursue — to be there for everyone.
This is just the beginning — it’s not just about one day of raising money, it’s about changing the face of mental health in Canada.
CBCSports.ca: So what essential advice would you give to friends and family who may know someone suffering?
Hughes: I would say it is important to support the people around you, but you need professionals. You need people that have experience dealing with mental illness that know the questions to ask, and know where to find the resources and how to utilize them. And I think my advice would be to support the ones you love, but also realize that there’s only so much you can do. … There are professionals there to help and make sure that you are accessing those people, wherever you can, however you can.