Teens at the Weyburn Junior High and St. Michael School were urged to speak up about mental health issues, and to either seek help if they experience mental illness, or to help someone out who is having a struggle with it.
This was the message passed on to them by Olympic athlete and cyclist Clara Hughes when she stopped by the school to address an assembly on Wednesday morning, before setting out on her bike on Highway 13 and heading out east to Carlyle some 113 kilometres away.
“Clara’s Big Ride” first rolled in to Weyburn the day before, as the six-time medalist arrived over half an hour early due to strong tail-winds, and she was the keynote speaker for the “Night to Inspire”, hosted by the Canadian Mental Health Association as a fundraiser event.
Both events began with the showing of a video by local students Chelsey Van Staveren and Delaney Gordon, in which Van Staveren shared about her personal struggles with depression.
Hughes told the students she was deeply moved by the video, which she watched on the way over to the school from her hotel.
“It was pretty emotional to watch that, and to see a kid from your home town be so open about her struggle with depression. It’s been four years for me in talking about depression, and I don’t express it as well as she did,” said Hughes.
At one point in the video, Van Staveren said she wished that someone could describe what it felt like to feel nothing, because that’s how she felt sometimes, and Hughes made note of that, saying she knew exactly what the 16-year-old student was expressing.
“If you’re struggling, you have to get back up,” said Hughes, noting the singer Serena Ryder performed at one of her stops earlier this year, and openly expressed her struggle with depression also, leading to the writing of a poignant song.
“Seven million Canadians suffer with a form of mental illness; a lot of people are coping and thriving with depression — you’re not alone,” Hughes said, adding for those who don’t have a mental illness, “You can help someone get through those dark times.”
The Olympian noted she grew up in Winnipeg and came from a difficult family situation where her sister and father both suffered mental illness.
“I’ve done a lot of bad things and made a lot of bad choices,” said Hughes, noting as a teenager she got into drinking, smoking and drugs, and until she was 16, she had no idea what the Olympic Games were.
When she was 16, she saw the Winter Olympic Games as they were being held in Calgary, and remembered being amazed watching an athlete “pour himself into his event. When I saw him do that, I connected to that.”
She noted she particularly found herself attracted to long track speed-skating, and said, “I knew then I was going to be an Olympian.”
Her first speed-skating meet was in Regina, and said even this trip from Winnipeg made an impact on her as a teenager, because her family simply had never taken any trips outside of Winnipeg.
“It felt like I was travelling to Europe or something,” said Hughes. “For me, depression came at a later age.”
When it did come, as she began winning medals, “I thought I was stronger than depression, and I couldn’t. I refused the help that was there for me,” she said, adding when she fell into it, she took two years to get out of it.
Hughes is nearing the end of her 12,000-km 110-day bike ride to every province and territory in Canada, with the goal to raise awareness of mental health issues and get people talking about them openly, without a negative stigma attached.
She noted she was on her 90th day, and had ridden 8,050 km to that point, taking in 205 community and school events along the way.
“That’s not for everybody; for most people, talking is just one person at a time. I didn’t have a family member I could talk to about this,” said Hughes, adding for any students who felt like that, they have school counsellors and teachers who could help.
“There are people to talk to, so you can know you’re not alone,” she said.
As a part of her presentation and assembly, there were two bikes up on stage, one painted blue with a sign on the front wheel for “Clara’s Big Ride”. Hughes autographed the front wheel of this bike, which will be kept on display at the school, while the other bike will be raffled off to raise funds for the CMHA.
Rebecca Mondor of the MALT Squad came up and said the goal of their student organization was, “We want kids to be happy with who they are. As a member, you can help put a smile on someone’s face.”
In addition, Hannah Bitz of St. Michael School and Bailey Cole of WJH, representing the student councils of their schools. were each given an autographed shirt and a copy of the Chelsey Van Staveren video, and each pledged to make sure the students in their respective school will get to see it and benefit by it.