Olympian committed to championing mental health

London Community News
By Sean Meyer


Six-time Olympian Clara Hughes enjoyed a big breakfast on Tuesday (April 20) and shared it with some 1,100 eager fans and supporters of her own journey through depression.


Hughes was the keynote speaker at the seventh annual Breakfast of Champions, a presentation of St. Joseph’s Health Care Foundation and the Canadian Mental Health Association, held at London Convention Centre. The breakfast raises awareness and funds for mental health programs in the community.


“This is definitely the biggest breakfast date I have ever had, so thanks for showing up,” said Hughes, who added she wasn’t only in London to share her stories of Olympic glory.


“It was an honour, it was a privilege, it was absolutely the time of my life,” Hughes said. “I am also here to share with you not just those moments of joy, but perhaps more importantly, the moments of struggle that made me not just the athlete I was, but the person I am.”


In addition to Hughes personal story, the breakfast also included the presentation of the Champion of Mental Health Awards. The awards honour local individuals or organizations for their contributions to mental health care delivery or promotion.


This year’s champion awards went to Paul and Barbara Hebert, advocates for mental health and initiatives to combat stigma, and Lisa Mercer, who helped Thames Valley District School board develop and implement its mental health strategic plan.


The champions, indeed all the nominees, were very much deserving of recognition by the audience. However, it was Hughes and the story of her triumph over depression — and her commitment to championing mental health — that had the sell-out crowd captivated.


“To have 1,100 people here this morning for a mental health fundraising breakfast; 10 years ago, no way. How are you going to fill a room with 100 around a subject that nobody wants to talk about?” Hughes said. “It has been amazing for me to see the change that is happening, to be a part of it; honestly it means the world.”


Hughes shared many of her Olympic memories, but was quite open in discussing how her early athletic success led to battles with depression. Sharing that battle is what Hughes describes as being the most important work of her life.


Hughes described herself as being “severely over-trained as young athlete,” something that she says quite likely helped drive her to the success of winning her first two bronze medals at the 1996 Summer Olympics. In a 20-year Olympic career, Hughes would go on to become the only person to ever win multiple medals at both the summer and winter games.


That over-training, Hughes freely admits, began a downward spiral that led to depression.


“To be quite frank, it absolutely destroyed me. I had no balance, I couldn’t take a day off because I thought I was lazy if I did, I had coaches tell me I was lazy if I took a day off of work,” Hughes aid. “I was pushed into the ground; to come back to sport took years.”


Hughes describes herself as being “completely delusional” before deciding to seek out the help she needed to deal with her depression.


That help, Hughes said, came through a reconnection with nature, finding balance in her life through new coaches and taking better care of myself. Hughes said she needed to “fundamentally change the way I did my job,” and live a more balanced and healthy lifestyle — ironic considering her success as an elite athlete.


“I didn’t want to show weakness, I had to be strong, I had to be good, I had to win. That was the mindset I was in,” Hughes said. “I wish I could give that kid advice because it didn’t have to be that hard. It is me; it is my path, and I don’t regret any of it, but I don’t want another young person to go through it.”


Hughes said giving advice can be a tricky thing, but she is quick to suggest people do what she did and ask for help. People aren’t going to find the solutions themselves, Hughes said, and added there needs to be a recognition that people shouldn’t believe they are “just going to fix yourself; it isn’t going to happen.”


In addition to speaking about her role as spokesperson for Bell Let’s Talk Day, along with the creation of Clara’s Big Ride (a nationwide cycling effort to promote mental health), Hughes said her greatest satisfaction comes in sharing her story with young people.


“I feel youth actually really has the answers. I feel that if we empower and educate the young ones, they will eliminate stigma,” Hughes said. “Young people need a purpose in life; they are bombarded with so much . . . thankfully, mental health, mental illness, everything that has been happening with bullying, social media, letting them know they can actually change this, it is pretty awesome.”

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