Olympic champ gives mental health talk in Olds

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About 500 people come to Ralph Klein Centre to hear Clara Hughes, get copies of her book signed

Students, residents and visitors packed the Ralph Klein Centre in Olds on March 9 to hear six-time Olympic medallist and mental health advocate Clara Hughes talk about her battle with addiction and depression.

Hughes spoke to a crowd of about 500 people for close to an hour-and-a-half. A question-and-answer session followed before she signed copies of her book Open Heart Open Mind. The event was free to the public.

Her speech covered growing up in a family marred by her father’s alcohol abuse, competing in her first Olympics in 1996 with an eating disorder, her experience as Canada’s flagbearer at the 2010 Games, all the way to her decision to become a mental health advocate.

“So many people that I know have had these struggles that are so universal yet are struggles that we don’t really talk about enough. So I just want to bring in personal experience and try to share with these young Canadians that it’s OK to struggle,” Hughes said, speaking to media beforehand.

One of Hughes’ key points was how chasing medals and victories replaced her reliance on drugs and alcohol early in her life. But no matter what she achieved, the wins never resolved the trauma she experienced as a child.

Hughes said she refused help for a period of two years, thinking she could fight her illness alone.

This speech was about getting people to share their experiences with mental illness.

“For me, it’s definitely been professional help that made the big difference, and I’ve learned so much through being able to talk about what these struggles are and just to let them know this is a powerful story that you have to share with others, that can really help others if you’ve gone through things like this,” she said.

Several organizations partnered to sponsor Hughes’ appearance: Olds College, Students’ Association of Olds College, Town of Olds, College Housing Olds Co., Dr. Jody Carrington and the Alberta government.

Fritz Latimer is a nurse and health and safety consultant at the college. She had been working with the students’ association and support services at the school since September, planning the talk.

The goal, she said, was to raise awareness of mental health for staff, students and the community, to show it is a priority on campus, in hopes they will seek help should they need it. Inviting Hughes was how they would do that.

“Once we thought that was the direction we wanted to go, I approached different people within the community who might be able to financially support us, as well as support us on our mental health initiatives,” Latimer said.

Broncos athletic director Bob Murray MCed the event. Latimer got to introduce Hughes, one of her favourite Olympians, to the crowd.

“It was awesome. And just thinking about her being a six-time medallist and an avid road biker, which I love road biking as well, was just fantastic. It was a really great experience for me, one that I’ll never forget,” she said.

She was also pleased with the turnout.

“I think it’s really cool we can engage our high school body too. Being able to reach out to our Deer Meadow kids and our Olds High School kids was fabulous, having them there. And then I like the idea of having the whole community. If they want to come, they can come and it was great. Almost a full house.”

jho@olds.greatwest.ca

“So many people that I know have had these struggles that are so universal yet are struggles that we don’t really talk about enough. So I just want to bring in personal experience and try to share with these young Canadians that it’s OK to struggle.” CLARA HUGHESOLYMPIC MEDALLIST

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