Clara Hughes at Partners in Prevention: behind the smile

Apr 22, 2013

Clara Hughes imageEverybody loves Clara Hughes. The world's first Olympian to earn multiple medals at both the winter and summer games, and Canada's top ranked Olympic medal holder alongside Cindy Klassen, Clara could just as easily be the neighbour who helps you unload your groceries, or the woman in the coffee shop who gives a hand to the new mother struggling with a stroller.

What particularly endears Clara to everyone is her smile - warm, spontaneous, and sincere. How can you not smile back?

But smiles are tricky. We forget they’re an emotional snapshot of a moment in time, and assume instead that the person is always smiling. Always happy.

When Clara Hughes became the face of Bell Let’s Talk1, a multi-year, multi-million dollar charitable program promoting mental health, Canadians learned that there was more to her story than her Olympic triumphs.

The faster someone gets treatment, the odds of them remaining functional in their lives and jobs are greater. This requires prevention and early detection.

Clara Hughes

HSO Network Magazine spoke with her about working through depression. This story begins after Clara’s first Olympics, in 1996.

In a television special aired on February 12, Bell Let’s Talk Day, you said you realized you were in a depression only after someone reached out to you.

Yes, a doctor.

What had the doctor seen that suggested you might be depressed?

I was at a training camp and crying all the time. I had also put on a lot of weight and was just miserable.

My friends had tried to be there for me, but they didn't know what was going on either. I wouldn't tell anyone. I thought it was up to me to make myself better.

As an athlete, you're trained to just suck it up. I've fallen and crashed on my head and split my face open, and was still able to get back on my bike to finish a race. With the depression I thought, 'Okay, I just have to pull myself together and keep moving forward.' But this was unlike anything physical I'd ever experienced.

I kept pushing myself to move forward, but I was so weighted down with the depression that there was no forward momentum to be had. I just made it worse.

How did this affect your training?

I raced my bike for six weeks in 1997 and maybe seven weeks in 1998, and I ended up quitting because I didn't think I could do it anymore.

For an Olympic athlete, was this like giving up your job?

Oh, absolutely. I lost two years of doing my job because I didn't think I could do it anymore. It really is a work-related thing. It goes to the statistic of 500,000 Canadians being out of work every day due to related mental health issues.

People in Canada don't see Olympic sports as work, but I see it more in the French term of métier, which is your job but also your life. It just happens to be work. That's what sport was for me.

So there’s a lot at stake if you feel you can't do it properly.


When you realized you were going through a depression, how did the people in your life react? Or didn't you tell them?

I didn't tell them. I kept it to myself and my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time. But people knew. The members of the national road cycling team knew. I told them I couldn't race any more that year, that I didn't have the capacity, and the response was, ‘Just do what you need to do to get better, we're here for you.’

I had a 2-year contract at that time that my team honoured the entire way through. They offered me access to different people they had working for them, such as a sports psychologist. The director of the national team kept reaching out to me. I felt uncomfortable accepting support while I wasn't training, but the director, Pierre Hutsebaut, sent me a note that said, ‘Clara, it doesn't matter… We want you back.'

It was incredibly supportive. And this was back in 1997-1998, but as athletes we had access to support. I think if the general public had the same sort of access, it could really help people manage and cope - make better decisions for themselves, manage their stress better, and contribute more.

Based on your own experience, what do you want people who are responsible for others to know or do about mental health and mental illness?

I would hope we could just start seeing mental illness the same way we see physical illness and disease. There should be compassion, understanding, and treatment. But there also has to be a workplace component. How are you going to accommodate or reintegrate that person back into the workforce? That's one aspect. The other is how can co-workers, managers and senior management be trained to make the accommodation or reintegration smooth and successful?

It's really multi-layered, and I think if workplaces looked at things from a more holistic and supportive point of view, this in itself would probably lessen the risk of people falling into depression and anxiety. It would take a lot of pressure off of people. It’s been proven that the faster someone gets treatment, the odds of them remaining functional in their lives and jobs are greater. This requires prevention and early detection.

You touched on this in the documentary. You said, ‘I think we can be watchdogs for each other. A circle of strength.'

Yes, it's so true. I got that term from the work I do with Right to Play2. I've worked with kids all over Africa, Canada and internationally. In the last three years, Right to Play has taken on the major problem of the rights of children. Basically, the organization has established children's rights groups, where they learn about their rights as citizens and human beings, and start acting in their communities to protect their own rights and the rights of the children around them. I'm talking about kids as young as 7 and 8 years old, and they’re having a profound impact in their communities. If these kids can do that, come on, we can certainly do this as adults here in the developed world.

I really believe we can make our world a better place. The reality is that depression can affect anyone at any time, and there's no rhyme or reason or pattern. Every case of mental illness is different. It could be hereditary or not. It could be developmental. It could be from upbringing or a tragedy in life. It can happen to you. Your life might be great today, but tomorrow it might be different. I know that for a fact, because I experienced it. We need to start understanding the reality behind the statistics.

You’ve said that many people have come up to you and talked about their own experiences. What does this say about the prevalence of mental health challenges in peoples' lives?

It tells me people don't have anyone to talk to. They're afraid. I've met so many people who said they were afraid they’d lose their job if they said anything. But now I'm starting to meet people who have actually spoken out or reached out for help, or helped someone around them. And 99% of the time, what they say is, 'I had no idea someone was there to help me,' or 'I had no idea I could get better,' or ‘I had no idea these programs existed.'

As we open this dialogue and start normalizing mental illness in Canada as a treatable form of disease, I think people will be amazed how quickly these perceptions will change.

It’s been 17 years since you were diagnosed with depression. How is life these days?

It continues to be a challenge to maintain balance. Especially after retiring from sport after 22 years competing at the highest level. I am in a period of major transition and realizing once again that I can't do everything alone, that it is so important to allow support to come in and help. Allow people to help and to ask for that help when I need it. I am reminded each day of making good lifestyle choices and how these fundamental living decisions affect my body and my mind. Movement is my medicine and I give myself a dose daily by being active!

What will you be talking about during your keynote session at Partners in Prevention 2013?

I hope to share, to inspire and to provoke thoughts and ideas the audience may not have previously considered. I speak from the heart and share personal experiences, and I look forward to giving insight into what it was like to represent Canada on the international stage and how this affected me. I want to share the joy and the struggle and to show by sharing that anything is possible if you open your mind and your heart.

Additional reading

1Bell Let's Talk, launched in 2010, was conceived as a way to create a national conversation about mental health. On the day, Bell donates to mental health programs five cents for text messages and long distance calls placed by Bell and Bell Aliant customers, tweets using #BellLetsTalk, and Facebook shares of the Bell Let's Talk Day image. Canadians responded this year with 96,266, 266 texts, calls, tweets, and Facebook shares, helping to raise $4,813,313.30. To date, Bell's total commitment to Canadian mental health is now $62,043,289.30.

2Right to Play is a Canadian-based global organization that uses the transformative power of play to educate and empower children facing adversity. Through sports and games, Right To Play helps children in more than 20 countries build essential life skills and better futures, while driving lasting social change. The organization was founded in 2000 by four-time Olympic gold medalist and social entrepreneur Johann Olav Koss. Clara Hughes serves on the International Board of Directors. A challenge issued by Clara in 2006 to Canadian businesses and individuals has raised more than $450,000 in support of Right To Play's sport and play programs.

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