Speed skater and cyclist accepts honorary doctorate, speaks on mental illness
TRU can add a six-time Olympic medalist to its list of honorary alumni.
The usually solemn award ceremony was interrupted several times as the audience broke into applause.
“In the four years I’ve been chancellor of Thompson Rivers University, we’ve conferred a number of honorary degrees on a number of worthy recipients, but I can say I’ve never heard so much applause, so much love and affection as there is here in this room for Clara Hughes,” TRU chancellor Wally Oppal told the audience.
According to TRU, the degree is in recognition of Hughes’s athletic accomplishments as well as her humanitarian efforts, which include organizations like Right to Play, a $10,000 donation in 2010 to Vancouver’s inner city program Take a Hike and her efforts as a mental health advocate, including her role as a spokesperson for Bell’s Let’s Talk day.
Normally awarded at convocation, Hughes was unable to cross the stage last spring, as she was part way through Clara’s Big Ride, an initiative that saw her bike more than 11,000 kilometres across Canada to raise awareness about mental illness.
Dean of students Christine Adam nominated Hughes for the award.
“I like to nominate people who I think our students would really value meeting and hearing from, and Clara was one.
“I also always look for women who are contributing…in different ways to our society and making the world a better place and, in particular, I have a really strong passion for supporting the mental wellness of our students and so it matches very well with the work Clara’s done,” Adam said.
The degree from TRU is Hughes’ fifth. She already holds honorary doctorates of law from the University of Manitoba, the University of British Columbia and the University of Alberta, as well as a doctorate of letters from the University of New Brunswick.
Hughes said it was funny that she was adding all of these degrees on top of what, up until recently, was only a Grade 12 education from an inner city school in Winnipeg.
“It’s pretty amazing to be here with all these amazing young minds and these cerebral athletes,” she said.
TRU awards honorary doctors of laws for skills in business and profession, doctors of letters for achievements in community service, arts and science and doctors of technology.
After shedding her ceremonial robes, the newly minted “Dr.” Clara Hughes took the stage again to speak on her own achievements and years-long struggle with depression.
“I am one of the one in five,” she told the audience, referencing the popular statistic that one in five Canadians will suffer from mental health issues sometime in their lives.
This year’s President’s Lecture began with a video highlighting Hughes’s Olympic victories, including two bronze medals in cycling in 1996, a bronze medal in Salt Lake City in speed skating, gold and silver medals four years later in Torino and a final speed skating medal in the 2010 Vancouver Games, where she won bronze.
“What that video doesn’t show, and what life doesn’t show, is the spaces in between,” Hughes said.
Hughes began her story by describing her childhood growing up in what she describes as a dysfunctional home with a history of mental illness. Hughes’ sister suffers from severe depression and has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and her father struggles with addiction.
That environment, Hughes said, led to a lifestyle of smoking, drinking and drugs before she became involved in speed skating at the age of 16.
Hughes went on to describe her slide into clinical depression after the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, and the denial she felt during the two years that she did not seek help.
“I was too good for depression, right? I had Olympic medals, that was going to get me through anything,” she said. “I held onto those things outside of myself because I didn’t want to admit the weakness, what I thought was weakness, inside of me.”
Hughes first publically spoke on her struggles with depression after her last winter Games in 2010, a move that launched her into her role as an advocate and spokesperson for mental health.
“I started realizing that people just thought it was all good and all beautiful and I must have come from this great place because I did these great things,” she said.
“I realized I had more to share.”
Adam saluted Hughes for her advocacy. In an interview with The Omega earlier that day, Adam said she feels Hughes has contributed greatly to the campaign for mental health, de-stigmatizing mental illness and fostering open conversation on the topic.
“I think that any time you start to talk about mental health, people will very quietly say ‘oh yeah, I’ve struggled with that,’ or ‘a member of my family has,’ and the more that we feel comfortable talking about it, the easier it will be for people to seek help,” she said.
Hughes also told The Omega that she feels mental illness has become better understood and accepted in the last five years, but added that the health care system must improve if it is to meet people’s needs.
“The support isn’t there for people who are struggling and it needs to be so much better,” Hughes said.
Hughes closed her hour-long lecture by urging the audience to accept the struggle of those with mental issues without also shaming them for their illness.
“We’re so much better than this,” she said. “Here at this university today I have seen so much compassion…there is compassion and connection happening right here. You, all of you, especially the young ones, please know that you can change your world. Please know that you can do anything with your actions and don’t ever underestimate the power of your actions when you reach out to someone.”