Clara Hughes is exhausted.
But the six-time Olympian is putting thoughts of rest aside, determined to roll into Ottawa on Canada Day, completing her 110-day Clara’s Big Ride, a nationwide journey aimed at raising awareness of mental health issues that affect one in five people across the country.
The 41-year-old Hughes, who suffered from depression while capturing six Olympic medals in cycling and speed skating, grew up in a home with an alcoholic father and a sister who has suffered from bipolar disorder for 24 years.
“I came from a family of struggles,” Hughes told a crowd of about 800 who gathered Thursday night to hear her inspirational tale at the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium.
“I got lucky,” she said, moments later, “because sport saved me. Sport gave me a lifeline. My sister wasn’t so lucky.”
Embarking on the 12,000-kilometre trek that’s taken her from coast to coast to coast, an extension of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, is Hughes’ way of helping to break down the stigmas attached to mental illness.
Too many people, thinking they’ll be seen as weak, try to hide their affliction, refusing to seek help because of how they think they might be viewed by their friends and family.
That’s the wrong approach, said Hughes, who arrived in Thunder Bay on Day 98 of her trek.
“We seem to think that it is not an illness,” she said. “We seem to think people should just get over it.”
Hughes, who captured a pair of Olympic cycling bronze medals at the 1996 Atlanta Games, won Winter Olympic bronze six years later and gold in 2006. She remains the only athlete to have won multiple medals in both the Winter and Summer Games.
Thankfully, attitudes across Canada toward mental illness are starting to change. She’s seeing it firsthand as she stops in communities large and small from one end of Canada to the other.
“It’s time that we start empowering people who are struggling,” she said.
“Mental illness is not the end of life.”
Hughes said she only got through her struggle with depression because the help was available.
“That is not the case for most Canadians,” she said.
Clara’s Big Ride is not a fundraiser, though it is inspiring grassroots events at every stop. One hundred per cent of the money raised stays in each community, each of which has s different story to tell, a different experience and a different level of access to resources.
Locally, the timing couldn't be better.
"This is important to Thunder Bay because mental health is important to everyone. And that is exactly what Clara is speaking about - mental health and wellness -- removing the stigma associated with talking about mental health and wellness. Everybody will be affected by that," said Diane Walker, the executive director of Children's Centre Thunder Bay.
Thunder Bay is no different that anywhere else in Canada.
"Kids, families, adults, people of all kinds and all persuasions struggle with mental health issues," Walker added. "The stats show one-in-five Canadians at any one time will be struggling with mental health. This is true for children too. This is truly important to deal with, particularly with children's mental health, tackling the problem early."
Help doesn’t have to be money. A simple increased level of understanding can go a long way too, Hughes said.
That’s the essence of the message Hughes, who will join students for an event Saturday morning at Superior Collegiate Vocational Institute, has been delivering since March 14, when her journey began in Toronto.
“If you seem someone struggling, you don’t just tell them where to go. You take them there,” she said, pledging never to stop her fight.
“My heart is broken in about a million pieces. The reality is that lives are being lost because of the silence. We need to push so hard to make this shift happen as fast as we can because we are losing too many.”
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