Olympian Clara Hughes takes a lap with the TRU community ahead of degree ceremony
There were 130 participants in the Nov. 20 event, with Hughes leading the group. The event began at Old Main and went for two loops around campus.
WolfPack team captain Ryan Pidhirniak had the idea to create the event to raise awareness for mental health after a teammate and friend took her own life over the summer.
“After the death of my teammate, I just thought, ‘I have to do something,’” Pidhirniak said.
He approached his assistant coach Sharon Munk, who is also a counsellor, with the idea. Munk, with the help of the WolfPack cross-country team and nursing student Amy Gordon, organized the first Walk/Run a Kilometre in My Shoes event.
The event was not only meant to raise awareness about mental health, but to raise awareness about the availability of counselling services at TRU.
“We have world-class people available to help kids that are struggling with depression or a form of anxiety. We all know how tough it gets around finals and there’s somebody here to talk to if you need to,” Pidhirniak said.
Pidhirniak said it is too soon to outwardly honour the teammate that took her own life by associating her with the event, but hopes that with the approval of her family, the event can later commemorate her.
“She meant a lot to me and the team and we don’t want her memory to be lost,” Pidhirniak said.
After the event, many students, including the WolfPack cross-country team, got the opportunity to meet Hughes and listen to her recount her own struggles with depression.
“I thought winning medals would kind of fix me, make me feel good about myself… and it did the opposite,” Hughes said to media outside Old Main.
Hughes said that sports gave her a sense of belonging and even kept some feelings of depression at bay, but it was not a solution and eventually she sought help.
“Athletic competition attracts really intense personalities…and people that may be prone more to OCD, to anxiety. Just because you’re so strong doesn’t mean you don’t have weakness,” Hughes said. “I think sport is something that allows people to mask the weakness a little more, so maybe people are attracted to it.”
Hughes said she knows a lot of athletes who struggle with mental illness and thinks that there is a greater percentage of high performers that struggle with mental illness.
Kayla Morrison, a first-year WolfPack runner, was diagnosed as a child with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
“I was really ashamed at first. It’s something that I put my own stigma on,” Morrison said.
Morrison believes awareness about mental illness has increased in the past few years, which helped her to become more open about her own struggles.
“The more awareness we get reduces the stigmatization and will enable people to actually get the help they need. It may be able to reduce the more higher risks, like suicide, which is something that has been increasing in the past few years, especially in Canada,” she said.
Morrison said she knows a lot of people with mental illness who reach out to athletics. She believes team support and exercise is a positive influence on mental health, and that stigmatization around mental health needs to change.
“Being sick with depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or whatever you may deal with is no different than being sick with a medical illness, they are the same thing and that’s something people really need to realize,” she said.
Morrison has lost three people, friends and family members, to suicide in the last two years.
“There are people that die everyday because they’re too scared to talk to someone and that breaks my heart. It’s not okay and it’s preventable.”
Although mental illness affects people of all ages, Munk believes young people at university are particularly vulnerable because it’s a transitional period in their lives.
“I do think student athletes are under their own unique stresses because they’re trying to balance school and the demands and expectations of varsity sports but they’re not any different than any student that has their own stresses,” Munk said.
Munk was thrilled to see all the participants that came out for the run. She also hopes it can become an annual event.
“This was a big way that we could say that we’re going to honour that team member’s memory and make sure that doesn’t happen to others,” Munk said.
“We can do our small part in helping to prevent it for somebody else by making them aware of the supports and resources that we have here on campus,” she said.
Munk’s advice for anyone struggling with mental illness is to talk to somebody about it, whether it’s a friend, family member, teacher or counsellor, and to get directed to professional support if it’s needed.