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mental health

Olympian Clara Hughes.

One more time this summer, Clara Hughes will come churning around an Olympic corner, a six-time medal winner – four in speed skates, two on a bike – chasing down a seventh medal on a speeding cycle.

TV lights will flood her path. Flashes will throw light on her. And Hughes will remember that success doesn't always mean bright times. Sometimes – we don't always know where or when – the time of light and hope gets swallowed up in the darkness of depression and tears.

For two years, after she won her first pair of cycling bronze medals at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, she "imploded." She'd cry and not know why. She trained to be in the best shape of her life and yet she didn't want to race her bike again.

Hughes, the 2010 Olympic flag bearer for Canada, was falling from a pinnacle into the blackness of depression.

"It's not about me. The only reason I've shared my story is to take that tiny baby step of breaking down the stigma attached to depression," says Hughes, who is the national spokesperson for sponsor Bell Canada's Lets Talk campaign in support of mental health services. She's on billboards and television, flashing her picture-perfect smile.

"People tell me they recognize the smile. It's the biggest thing I've ever been able to do. The struggle I went through has value. … I went through it to be able to share it."

The Let's Talk initiative is a five-year multimillion-dollar support program for mental health ventures in Canada. On Wednesday, Bell Canada and Bell Aliant will donate five cents to mental health programs for every text message sent or long-distance call made on the Bell system.

"My story is small compared to people I know still struggling with mental illness. But people come up to me to talk now. … In an airport in Montreal, or on the street in Toronto, someone will tell me what they've gone through, or what their family member or friend has gone through. And they always say, 'Thank you for what you're doing with this campaign.'"

One in five Canadians will experience mental illness in his or her lifetime, according to the Canadian Institute of Health Research. Most are unwilling to discuss it with a friend, relative or co-worker.

Hughes didn't realize she was tumbling into a serious depression in 1996. She wasn't alone. According to statistics from the Canadian Mental Health Association, about three million Canadians have a serious depression at any given time. They think they can get out of it by working harder – then blame themselves when it doesn't work.

"The cycle of overtraining continued and I got injured," Hughes said Tuesday. "It kept pushing myself further. Eventually, I realized I wasn't just having physical problems – I had an emotional problem. I was living alone, in Hamilton, Ont., and was isolating myself. I felt I had to fix myself. There was something wrong, but I didn't know what it was. I had some experience in dealing with people who have mental illness and depression, but I didn't see the signs in myself. I couldn't ask for help because I didn't know I needed help."

As the depression worsened, Hughes put on weight and was sleeping almost all day. A lot of days she didn't get on the bike to train and felt more and more guilty. She said she wasn't doing her job and felt embarrassed at how she looked.

"It was when I went to a training camp that a national team doctor [Gloria Cohen]confronted me and said I was showing all the signs of depression."

The doctor and Hughes' boyfriend – Peter Guzman, now her husband – told Hughes there was an answer and that things would be alright if she could talk about her problems. It wasn't an instant solution but the glimmer of hope Hughes needed, that it wasn't hopeless. Guzman also showed her the world was bigger than the limited cycle-oriented world she'd carved out for herself. She became a reader, a hiker, a creative artist – and a speed skater. She is the only Canadian to have won both Summer and Winter Olympic medals.

"It's something I deal with to this day, a fear of falling back into that darkness. I see athletes go through a similar thing. … With athletes, it's never fully understood the level to which we push ourselves. Especially in an endurance sport."

The athletes' single-minded focus – call it obsession – worked against her as it was working for her.

"In some ways it was destructive and in other ways it was what I needed in my life," she said.

"As a 19-year-old I was riding my bike 23,000 kilometres in the 11-month cycling season. But all accounts of what I know as a mature athlete, that was too much. But it was what I wanted to do, I wanted to be the best."

Coaching pushed Clara, though she said it was not done with a Svengali's controlling intent. She said she learned determination and discipline. "Because I was pushed so hard it gave me the discipline I needed to change. I got though it and it brought me to where I am today, but would I go through it again, no way. And would I ever recommend that for any other young athlete, no."

This year, Bell is continuing its $1-million Community Fund, offering from $5,000 to $50,000 to local initiatives to improve access to mental health services to treat the invisible condition by eliminating the stigma and bolstering care. Last year the fund supported everything from an eating disorder group in Newfoundland to a crisis line in British Columbia.

Mental health issues are more widespread than people realize, Hughes noted. The federal government, in a 2006 study, called mental illness the No. 1 cause of workplace disability. About 500,000 Canadians are absent from their jobs daily because of mental illness.

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