Focus to remove stigma of mental illness as Olympian Clara Hughes visits

Published on April 16, 2014

NEW GLASGOW – Mental illness awareness was brought into the spotlight Wednesday when Olympian Clara Hughes biked into the county. 

The six-time Canadian Olympic speed skating and cycling medalist made a stop at the Pictou County Wellness Centre as part of her Bell Let’s Talk Clara’s Big Ride that has one goal in mind – create a stigma-free Canada in relation to mental illness.

The sold-out evening event included performances by Pictou County musicians Dave Gunning, George Canyon and local teenage musicians Third Step as well as some Pictou County residents sharing their own stories of dealing with mental illness. 

Donovan Stewart, lead guitarist of Third Step, said the band was honoured to perform one of its original songs, Not Alone, during the event.

“It’s a great feeling, especially when you are doing a great cause like this because so many people are suffering from mental illness,” he said.

It didn't hurt either that this would be the band’s biggest event and they were sharing the stage with Canyon and Gunning.

“I am pretty nervous,” said lead singer Bailey MacKinnon with a laugh.

Organizer Cecilia McRae said the local mental illness family support group, in conjunction with addiction and mental health services, jumped at the chance to host the event with Hughes, but wanted to make sure it had a strong local voice attached to it.

“We have Pictou County entertainers and we will adopt Clara for the day which is great and we have voices in telling stories as well. Some young people will tell their voices through song and Tim Daley will be in to tell his story. So we are bringing all the voices together,” she said.

Hughes’ national bicycle tour is covering every province and territory in Canada to grow awareness and action in mental health and help end the stigma around mental illness. She started the tour in March in Toronto and will end it July 1 in Ottawa.

During the tour, Hughes will share her own personal experience with mental health issues with youth at schools and community organizations. The goal of the tour is to empower youth to understand what mental health means to them and how they can support others who may be suffering. A positive end result would be to have the next generation of Canadians grow up in a society where there is no stigma associated with mental illness.

McRae said she didn’t know what kind of response they would get to the event when they started organizing it because there is such a stigma attached to mental health illness, but the end result was enlightening.

“We were overwhelmed by the support in any community we went into in Pictou County. We had no skills in this area. We co-facilitate a family support group so we don’t have any experience in event planning, but we went out and everyone gave us advice and we acted on that,” she said. 

McRae said people are telling them that it’s “about time” mental illness gets the attention it deserves.

“It’s amazing how many stories people had to tell us as we went along and telling us how prevalent it is. Everyone should be dealt with the same way,”  

During Wednesday’s event, Hughes was presented with a binder with more than 1,000 signatures from county residents who support what she is doing with her big bike ride.

“We wanted to say, there is support behind you, trying to push you on and get it so people don’t have to be ashamed to be mentally ill or have any kind of mental health or addiction issue,” she said.

McRae said there is still work to be done to improve mental health awareness in Pictou County and Nova Scotia, but she sees some improvements.

“Support in Pictou County is coming,” she said. “We have a lot to work on, but we are working on it.”

She said steps are being taken to talk more to family and friends of people suffering from mental illness and involve them in the healing process.  

“They are involving a lot more peer support, working with families, educating family,” he said. “We were, for the most part, on the sidelines looking in and now we are part of the process. Who understands our loved better than us? We can tell you when the symptoms started.” 

She said the event took three intense months to plan and she pleased with exposure, but their work doesn’t end when Hughes leaves the county.

In fact, Pictou County Voices for Mental Health has a walk for schizophrenia planned on May 3 in New Glasgow and everyone is welcome to join in the event.


For updates on this story follow and see Saturday’s paper.