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Building on Clara’s Big Ride

Posted January 23, 2015 in Bell Let's Talk by 0

Dr Heather Stuart

Clara’s Big Ride was a heroic effort on the part of Canada’s six time Olympic medalist Clara Hughes to raise awareness and reduce the damaging stigma that still lingers around mental illnesses.

Sharing a message of strength, hope and recovery on her unprecedented cycling journey around the nation, Clara talked openly with Canadians everywhere about her personal battle with depression.

Her Big Ride placed a spotlight on those who have successfully managed their mental illnesses and were willing to talk about it. If someone like Clara is open about what dealing with mental illness is like, that helps create a climate in which everyday people who struggle can feel more comfortable about reaching out for help.

The impact mental illness has on Canada as a whole

One in five Canadians will experience a mental illness each year. When left untreated, mental illnesses can destroy quality of life, derail academic trajectories, interfere with occupational goals, and reduce life expectancy.

Mental illnesses cost the Canadian economy more than $50 billion a year – in short and long-term disability, absenteeism, and reduced productivity.

Mental health services are seriously underfunded or, in many parts of the country, non-existent. Comprising 15% of the country’s health burden, mental illness receives less than 5% of health care funding. To compound the issue, most people who struggle actually delay or avoid seeking out whatever treatment options might be available. They may not tell anyone at all that they have a problem. The stigma is a primary reason.

Imagine if you were diagnosed with a serious physical illness. You would expect emotional and social support from people around you, and you’d almost certainly get it. You wouldn’t expect a wall of silence. You wouldn’t expect gossip, jokes or discrimination. You would not expect to be excluded from family gatherings and social networks, or to be seen as blameworthy for your own medical condition. And if you needed to see a specialist for that condition, you wouldn’t expect to wait a year or longer for an appointment.

Yet this is the reality for many Canadians who struggle with a mental illness.

When popular and high-profile people like Clara Hughes show others that they are comfortable speaking about their illness, sharing stories with others who’ve struggled, and taking the message of hope to everyone, it makes it that much easier for all of us to help move things forward. And there are certainly many simple things that we can all do to help reduce the stigma around mental illness, including:

  • Recognizing that language matters. People with a mental illness are not “a bipolar” or “a schizophrenic.” Many people still dismiss or joke about mental illness. What other serious and debilitating illnesses are they comfortable laughing about? Help reduce misperceptions and stereotypes by learning more about mental illnesses and the stigma that surrounds them.
  • Asking yourself how you would want to be treated if you had a serious illness. Small acts of kindness, such as a get-well card or an invitation to coffee, can go a long way.
  • Being wary of giving advice. People with a mental illness don’t want to hear that they’re “just going through a bad patch”. Ask and listen, and let them tell you what the illness is all about.
  • Looking for ways to support your local mental health and anti-stigma programs, and conveying your support to your political representatives.
  • Finally, and most importantly, starting a conversation about mental health with anyone you know. Because anyone you know has someone in their life impacted by a mental illness. Talk about it, and you’ll be taking a big step in help make Canada stigma-free and ensuring those who need help don’t fear asking for it.

Clara has given us a leg up. As she says, let’s keep the mental health conversation rolling forward. On Bell Let’s Talk day (January 27th, 2016), be sure to:
– Follow Bell Let’s Talk on Facebook and share the Let’s Talk day image.
– Follow Bell Let’s Talk on Twitter and use the hashtag #BellLetsTalk in tweets
– Send text messages and make long distance calls if you’re a Bell or Bell Aliant customer

Do any of the above, and Bell will donate 5 cents more to Canadian mental health initiatives.


Heather Stuart, PhD
Professor and Bell Canada Mental Health and Anti-stigma Research Chair
Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.

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