Clara Hughes opening eyes and helping end stigma associated with mental illness
© Diane Crocker
Clara Hughes laughs as she gives a hug to Randy Ferguson, a professional cycling announcer and member of Clara's Big Ride team, during an event at the Greenwood Inn and Suites in Corner Brook on Monday, April 21, 2014.
As a short-track speedskater, 12-year-old Rosemary Karn has dreams of becoming an Olympian.
That’s why she was so excited Monday evening to see Clara Hughes speak at a dinner hosted by the Canadian Mental Health Association Newfoundland and Labrador Division at the Greenwood Inn and Suites in Corner Brook.
“Clara Hughes is a really cool speedskater and it sounded interesting to come and listen to her,” said Karn, who attended the event with other members of the Humber Valley Speedskating Club of Newfoundland and Labrador.
After Hughes’ speech Karn said she wasn’t aware the six-time Olympic cycling and speedskating medallist has experienced mental illness.
“It felt kind of sad,” she said to hear Hughes talk of her struggles, “because I didn’t really know.”
But Hughes, who is cycling 12,000 kilometres around the country in Clara’s Big Ride, aimed at ending the stigma around mental illness, had a message for the adults and children who attended the event: “Anything is possible.”
“Please remember that, don’t ever give up, realize there is something for each and every one of us to do,” she said during her address.
“I think it’s a very good message,” said Karn, who added it left her inspired that she too can get to the Olympics.
“She’s done a really good job getting to where she is.”
Hughes told the audience that she felt the message about mental health awareness is being heard, something she’s seeing during her Big Ride.
Hughes said she grew up in a “dysfunctional” environment and by the time she became a teenager had started getting into trouble, drinking, doing drugs and skipping school.
At 16, she found speedskating and things changed. She left home at 18 and found success in her sport and discovered she didn’t want to return home.
Then came her first Olympic wins and she thought her feelings would change. Instead, she found herself in a state of clinical depression.
“I suffered in silence and I hid myself because I thought I’m an athlete and I have to be good and strong before I come back and show myself again in this world,” she said.
It was what she felt was expected of her, so she refused help for two years. It wasn’t until she realized she had people around her who believed in her and wanted to help her that Hughes was able to come back.
She said that’s not the reality for most people, but that reality is starting to shift.
The event Monday night and her ride are helping with that by bringing the conversation to communities.
After biking 4,100-km, Hughes told the audience “this ride has been so utterly inspiring and motivating to see, in every part of Canada we have travelled through, a connection that people are making with mental health.”
Mary-Beth Fallon, regional co-ordinator of the Canadian Mental Health Association Newfoundland and Labrador Division, said the ride is starting to break down the stigma of mental illness.
“It’s through Clara’s Big Ride, Clara’s team and Clara herself coming to our communities that really gives us an opportunity to put a face to mental illness and to be able to open those conversations in an effective way,” said Fallon. “If we don’t start talking about mental illness and if don’t start making it part of our regular conversations, much like Clara has, then we cannot overcome stigma.”
She said events like the dinner give people permission to speak and an opportunity to have a voice.
Fallon said the money raised from the dinner, auction and prize draws would remain in this area to support the programs offered through her office.