Clara Hughes: Making Mental Health Matter
“Used to skate in circles and ride a bike pretty fast, now do all things slow.” That’s how Olympian Clara Hughes describes herself these days—at least that’s what she says in her Twitter bio. It’s an apt but incomplete description of a woman who makes every decision with enviable deliberation.
Since 1996, when she earned two bronze medals on her bike in the Atlanta Olympics, Canadians have cheered Hughes’s athletic skill. She’s brought home six Olympic medals in both cycling and speed skating, making her the only person ever to win multiple medals in both the Summer and Winter Games. But she’s all too aware that life’s a marathon, not a sprint. Since stepping off the podium for good in 2012, she has approached the next phase of her life with a determination to give back to the community and an unwavering commitment to honesty. She’s shared her ongoing struggle with depression; she’s talked openly about her difficult childhood, her own poor choices and the impact of a father who was verbally abusive and who struggled with alcoholism.
We make heroes of our athletes, casting them as role models whether or not they prove themselves worthy of admiration outside of their sport. Few have risen to this challenge quite like Hughes. And it’s perhaps this strength of character that has earned her the trust of Canadians from coast to coast to coast.
Reader’s Digest: How does it feel to be one of the most trusted people in Canada?
Clara Hughes: It makes me kind of nervous! I try to just be myself. That’s what I consider a trustworthy person, someone who is themself—their whole being—in every circumstance.
Few would have pegged you as a Most Trusted candidate in your youth: you stole candy, forged notes, bought cigarettes as a minor. Is trust something you’ve had to work at over time?
Definitely. I’m pretty open about the stupid things I did as a young person. A lot of that comes out of having a dysfunctional family, internalizing guilt because of the breakup of that unit and expressing it in really delinquent ways.
In 1988 I saw [Olympic speed skater] Gaétan Boucher race on TV. It was such a powerful, freeing act of giving oneself to something. I’d never seen somebody care so much. That’s where my path as an athlete began. I was 16, and I was lucky that I fell into the hands of fantastic coaches who taught me that I had to trust myself—to understand and know which of my limits could be pushed and which limits needed to be respected.
We trust people who tell the truth, even when it’s hard, and you’ve been courageous on that front. After having been lauded for your fortitude, how did it feel when you started to speak publicly about things, like depression, that some might view as weakness?
I spent so many years just showing strength and joy. After two decades of that, I realized you’re only half human if that’s all you show. Having the opportunity to fully express myself was one of the most liberating—and terrifying and embarrassing—experiences, and I don’t regret it. I’ve been sharing my inner struggles for seven years, and I’ve connected with hundreds of thousands of people, and that makes any naysayer or trash talker seem so small.
It can take Olympic-level strength to cope with mental illness, but it’s not always seen that way. Do you think there’s progress being made on the stigma?
I do. People’s attitudes are changing, particularly those of young Canadians. I see a future when people look back on when there was a stigma—when no one would talk openly about mental illness—as an archaic, ridiculous time.
There can be an upside to struggling with something like depression when you’re getting support: it can force you to understand your mind and confront your demons. Have you found that?
Yes. That’s part of what’s allowed me to trust myself. But my experience with mental health has been pretty easy compared to what most people encounter. I had access to support as an athlete; I can afford a psychologist.
You’re saying that because accessing support, like psychotherapy, can be prohibitively expensive?
That’s what I struggle with the most. Talking is good, sharing is great and listening is even better, but there needs to be action [on access to support], and it needs to come from government. It’s moving so slowly that lives are lost. I know some of those lives. They’re in my heart, and they compel me to try to push for change. We’re better than this reality. We’re a country that prides itself on universal access to health care, but we focus on the physical, except in the most extreme cases. It’s the equivalent of a person with cancer being told, Wait until you’re at stage four and absolutely desperate, then we’ll get you on the waiting list.