Clara Hughes was the closing speaker at Farm Credit Canada’s forum last Friday, which drew hundreds of agricultural business owners, producers and operators to the Sheraton Hotel in Red Deer.
Social commentator Rex Murphy and finance journalist Bruce Sellery also spoke that day.
The six-time Olympic medallist and mental health advocate said her message was about keeping the conversation going about mental illness.
“These illnesses, left untreated, manifest in serious ways and we just don’t talk about it enough,” said Hughes in an interview earlier in the day.
Hughes said she sees similarities between the sporting and agriculture environments, which both value hard work and the belief in one’s ability to overcome all obstacles. Part of demystifying mental illness is showing that nobody is immune to it, she said, that some of the seemingly strongest, happiest people are struggling with it too.
“I just wanted to be able to show them that as someone who’s gone through this, someone who’s also been incredibly successful and is seen as strong and resilient, is also at times, weak and vulnerable and it’s okay to be that. It balances out,” said Hughes.
“As human beings, we’re everything. We’re not just strong and we’re not just good at everything. It’s not a matter of putting your head down. You have to let yourself be human.”
Hughes, Canada’s only athlete to win multiple medals at both the summer and winter Olympics, is also the author of the book Open Heart, Open Mind. Over the years, she has spoken about her own battle with addiction and depression, which stemmed from growing up with an alcoholic father.
One of the myths out there about mental illness is that people will seek help once they hit “rock bottom.” Hughes said that attitude creates life and death scenarios.
“Would you let it go to Stage 4 before you got screened, before you accepted or received treatment for cancer? You wouldn’t,” she said. “Why would you do it with mental illness, with a form of psychological illness?”
It has already been a busy December for Hughes. The night before her Red Deer appearance, she co-hosted the Arctic Inspiration Prize ceremony in Winnipeg, where $1.5 million was awarded to three projects that will make a positive impact on Arctic communities.
“I get to do all these amazing things and connect with youth and really try to encourage these young people to be at their capacity and challenge themselves,” she said.
Mere days before, Hughes was in Toronto attending events honouring the third anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s death, wheres she was the keynote speaker for a benefit gala. One of the beneficiaries was the Giants of Africa foundation, started by Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri.
Hughes said she met Ujiri at a Right to Play gala and found a shared vision.
“What I found was we really speak the same language when we talk about the transformation that can happen in a person when they have a chance and opportunity to express themselves. For both of us, that was sport and that’s what we try to encourage in others.”