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With Each Pedal, The Stigma of Mental Health Fades into the Distance

With Each Pedal, The Stigma of Mental Health Fades into the Distance

Six-time Olympic medalist Clara Hughes began her Big Ride for Bell Let’s Talk over 50 days and 5,500 kilometres ago. Below, Clara writes for The Globe and Mail about the impact her journey has had on her, as well as the satisfaction that comes from knowing that by sharing her story and sharing the stories of others, she’s helping to end the stigma against mental illness:

It can be a tough road and mental health is no exception. We all know someone who is impacted by mental illness, yet all too often that person’s suffering remains cloaked in mystery or simply ignored.

But with stigma keeping two out of every three Canadians living with mental illness from seeking help, we need to talk. I know this firsthand. I suffered from depression as a young athlete. It took me two years to realize I wasn’t alone and to ask for help. That’s what Mental Health Week is all about. And that’s why I’m cycling my way around Canada – to build a Canada free of the stigma of mental illness.

When I began Clara’s Big Ride for Bell Let’s Talk over 50 days and 5,500 kilometres ago, I really didn’t know what to expect. Sure, we had a plan for this around-Canada journey. Ninety-five communities had been mapped out, a great support team was in place, and an itinerary had been planned for every stop along the way, including more than 250 events.

But as we set off on our bikes on March 14 into the cold, crisp air of an Ontario winter that was refusing to end, we really didn’t know how people would react to the message we’re trying to spread – that mental health is an issue we’re all connected to in some way, and it’s time to stop ignoring the struggle and start talking about it.

It turns out Canadians of all ages and in communities large and small not only want to listen to someone like me talk about mental health, they want to share their own stories too. We’re growing the conversation, often in the simplest ways.

Young people so clearly full of hope and potential are coming out to welcome us when we pull into town or when I’m speaking at a community centre, arena or school. On our daily rides truck drivers honk as they pass me and people of all ages cheer us on from the side of the road. Each time someone asks about my experience of depression or shares their own story of that of someone close to them, the discussion about mental health is continuing to grow.

I know our message is being heard.

That makes every tick on the GPS bike computer worth it. And while we count the kilometres, and track our speeds – all part of the competitor in me – what’s harder to measure is the tremendous warmth and interest we’re receiving everywhere we go.

Sharing my own personal struggle with mental illness is just a starting point. From there we travel many paths: why do we feel the way we do, where can we find the support we need and how can we help ourselves and each other get better.

These discussions are inspiring and keep me energized for the ride ahead.

If we can make a difference for even just one person struggling with anxiety, stress, addiction or any other complex mental illness, then every ounce of effort is worth it.

It has often seemed like we’re chasing the cold given the weather we’ve experienced travelling through Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada. But having just enjoyed the warm welcomes of communities in the North, from Labrador and Nunavik, to Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, I’m eager to return to a road I’ve had the great privilege of experiencing before on two wheels. As you’re reading this, I’m pedalling the hard packed (hopefully dry!) gravel of The Dempster Highway en route to Dawson City, Yukon.

And then it’s on to Whitehorse, then south to British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, my home province of Manitoba and into Ontario again before arriving on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Canada Day.

On to new encounters and more conversations about mental health with young kids, teenagers, adults, families and community leaders along the way.

I can’t wait!

By Clara Hughes/The Globe and Mail/May, 2014