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Olympian Clara Hughes: An Amazing Mental Health Advocate

Mental health advocate Clara Hughes cycling in the 2012 Summer Olympics

When Olympian Clara Hughes vows to stand up to depression, the results can be amazing. This Canadian gal is well-known in Canada for her achievements as an Olympic cyclist and speed skater. Now she is a phenomenal mental health advocate. She champions for a cause that she knows well: depression.

Clara Hughes’ Sports Career

At age 41, Clara Hughes has been through quite a bit. The Canadian athlete is an Olympic medalist and not just once but six times! She not only thrived in more than one Winter Olympics at speed skating but also tackled the Summer Games in cycling. So, she’s a gal with many talents!

Hughes also has a big heart. When she won gold in 2006, she donated $10,000 to Right to Play, an organization devoted to using sports and games to help children learn necessary life skills to overcome challenges such as poverty and illness. Her most recent cause is in aid of depression.

Clara Hughes as a Mental Health Advocate

This Canadian athlete has publicly explained many times about her personal battles with depression. She is now the National Spokesperson for Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk Day, which is an annual event. It began in 2010. This special day is a national way to raise awareness for depression, an invisible illness as it’s not one you can see. Depression most certainly affects the sufferer and those people who care about him or her.

While many people still sadly shy away from openly explaining how mental illness has affected them, I admire how this woman has chosen to do exactly the opposite. While Olympian Clara Hughes inspires female athletes with her medals and strong work ethic, she continues to try to achieve more outside of sports.

Her efforts to try to break depression free of the public stigma attached to it is truly a notable, inspiring achievement of Hughes. She gives public talks about how she entered a period of depression after winning her second Olympic medal. She didn’t realize she was suffering from the condition until she went for therapy and received the needed education.

Unfortunately, many people feel ashamed of having depression. That’s largely because of Western society’s thoughts about what is “normal” or “acceptable.” And that definition excludes a mental illness, unfortunately. Many people hide it from their family and friends, which keeps them from seeking help for the condition or feeling accepted in society.

Personal Reflections on Depression

I read on the Bell Let’s Talk website that one in five people will develop a mental illness at some point in their lives. That is all too frequent, particularly since many people hide that they have it for fear of judgement.

For example, when I talk about having depression, some people understand while others don’t see it as a “valid” illness. Why not? Because it is not something that you can see or touch. But, it touches the heart emotionally as it brings down the spirit and, for me, it left me feeling hollow.

I hope that more women will follow Olympian Clara Hughes’ example and take a stand for depression. With more and more women courageously writing about mental illness, we can hope to inspire even more people to do the same. Let’s hope that any stereotypes about depression will finally be put to rest.

Have you ever felt the stigma associated with mental illness or known someone who has? What are some other ways to raise awareness about depression or other types of mental illness?

28 thoughts on “Olympian Clara Hughes: An Amazing Mental Health Advocate”

  1. I think it’s great that people who can make an impact are taking the steps to do just that. It’s really inspiring to hear about people who have gone through the same things, especially people who have achieved great things. It makes you realise that there is no set requirements for mental illnesses. People like this give me hope. <3

  2. Very inspiring and brings more awareness to depression. Terrific post Christy.

    This is a bit off-topic, but I was thinking about your comments about the stigmas. I can really relate to that. Just because you can’t see something does not mean it is not there or any less real (we have a traumatic brain injury in my family and she runs into similar issues all the time).

    1. Christy Birmingham

      Thank you, Leigh! Yes, it’s like the invisible things are harder to help people understand. You are quite right. I appreciate your comment and the sharing of your personal experience. xx

  3. Hi Christy… Thank you for this post and the reminder depression is very real in many around us and yes even in our own from time to time. Over the years the stigma attached to it has held many people back from sharing what they feel.
    Many years ago I slipped into a dark and lonely fog, I was able to function on a daily basis when I was out among people. I wore the mask well but in hindsight I wore it so well I myself was unable to see it.
    The best way to heal is to except you have it, share it with others and seek the help to discover the root cause, once learned reach out and help others and love them right where they are at… love heals all.

    Hugs from Alberta

    1. Christy Birmingham

      So true Rolly that we can function in public but in private we are pieces come undone… You explained it very well and I thank you for sharing your personal tale here. I am thankful you are now rising above darkness and smiling! Love certainly does heal, especially love one to gives to oneself.

  4. Depression is such an abstract illness, but how wonderful it is when you find an outlet to beat it like Clara Hughes did. I mean depression is so abstract because its symptoms are just not as obvious as other illnessess are. In philosophical and existentialist terms, it’s the “Dukkha”, a Buddhist term commonly translated as “suffering”, “anxiety”, “stress”, or “unsatisfactoriness”:
    Dukkha is commonly explained according to three different categories:

    1) The obvious physical and mental suffering associated with birth, growing old, illness and dying.
    2) The anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing.
    3) A basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of existence, because all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance.

    Nevertheless, modern science says depression is indeed “physical”: Major depressive disorder (MDD; commonly called major depression or clinical depression). So whether the depression is physical, philosophical, or existentialist, is something I suppose one ultimately decides; but as one meets one’s inner core, through mindfulness, one can at least hope to have smoother transitions.

    1. Christy Birmingham

      Thanks Maria for such a thoughtful comment what depression is and its ‘abstract’ qualities. Unfortunately because it cannot be seen outright in the same ways as, for example, chicken pox, it leads to some people not understanding it or sweeping it under the rug. Only through raising awareness – again and again – can we start to see more acceptance in society. Thanks for helping support the cause here xo

  5. Great article, Christy, to bring awareness to something that can affect anyone; depression holds no discrimination. Clara is inspiring and hopefully, more help can be found for those in need. xo

  6. What a great post Christy! Sharing Clara’s public journey with depression is inspiring for so many who suffer. There is no shame, only recognition. Posts like these can help spread the word for those who are unfamiliar with the disease and inspire those who suffer it. Sharing! :) xo

    1. Christy Birmingham

      Yes, I hope more and more people begin to understand there is nothing to be ashamed about… and I appreciate that you shared the post to help spread that message :)

  7. Christy… I tend to think that public figures are exposed to risk of depression and even more, addictions… I think that maybe this could be explained because they are used to live on the edge and take achievements as something they need to keep on reaching in a sort of unstoppable way…
    Your article made me think of an article by Sigmund Freud on Fear of Success.
    The specific article (dated 1915), Is called “Those Wrecked by Success”. And in that one Freud describes a tendency to fail “precisely when a deeply rooted and long-cherished wish has come to fulfillment … as though they were not able to tolerate happiness”.
    Thanks for this great reading!, best wishes, Aquileana :D

    1. Christy Birmingham

      How interesting about that tie you make with the Freud article. It sounds like he was hinting at how we sometimes don’t think we are worthy of having good things happen to us and so we instead look to the security of the bad as it’s more familiar to us… I haven’t read the article but will have to search it out to learn more. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    1. Christy Birmingham

      Couldn’t agree with you more about more people standing up… I think it is fear that prevents them from doing so…

  8. Good for her for bringing more attention to depression. Since I grew up with a bi-polar mom, I know all to well the stigma surrounding mental illness. I also tend to get blue at times, but thankfully have been able to keep a good enough perspective on things that I don’t stay down and out for too long.

    1. Christy Birmingham

      That’s wonderful Jeri that you can see the signs in yourself when you are starting to get down – that’s so important! Have a great weekend ahead xo

  9. Great article! I find it interesting Clara went into a depression after winning an Olympic medal.
    Clara is doing a great thing, and I’m sure helping many people. It’s the role model, being a super model!

    1. Christy Birmingham

      Yes, Resa, she explained in an article I read that she felt exhausted and wondered if she had achieved all she was meant to… and since when she sought help through therapy she has gone on to win more Olympic medals!

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