Olympic medalist motivates

By KIRAN MALIK-KHAN, Fort McMurray Public School District

clara

The six-time Olympic Medalist Clara Hughes headlined Fort McMurray Public School District’s annual professional development day on January 29, 2016. PHOTO: Kiran Malik-Khan, FMPSD

Over 550 people; pin drop silence. Not an unmoved individual. This was the reaction to Clara Hughes’ motivational talk. The six-time Olympic Medalist, and spokesperson for the Bell Let’s Talk campaign headlined Fort McMurray Public School District’s annual professional development day on January 29, 2016.

Ecole McTavish Junior High School was the venue for the full house with all FMPSD staff, and invited guests, and local community agencies. Hughes dubbed FMPSD as the model for Canada when it comes to mental health advocacy.

“Fort McMurray Public School District is an example for Canada when it comes to mental health. I applaud the District’s leadership, and teachers who provide an inclusive nature of support working together for students,” enthused Hughes.

The event was presented with support from Healthy Schools Wellness Grant, Syncrude Canada, Alberta Teachers’ Association, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, and Canadian Mental Health Association of Wood Buffalo (CMHA). Deputy Mayor, Jane Stroud, brought greetings on behalf of Mayor and Council, as well as Jeff Thompson, Board Chair, FMPSD, Syncrude’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tom Lawley, and Mark Ramsankar, President, Alberta Teachers’ Association.

Hughes began her talk with recalling her childhood in Winnipeg in a challenging family environment. Her father was an alcoholic, and her adolescent years were troublesome.

“My experiences have allowed me to connect with people in a rich way. You can find a way to articulate those difficulties. I think it brings a humanity to the struggle.”

She finally found the love of sports, and excelled, but because of a few unsupportive coaches, Hughes succumbed to eating disorders and then depression.

“I couldn’t look at my Olympic medals. I slept for 16 hours, and gained 30 lbs. until a doctor helped me. This is an illness and there is treatment, but you can’t do it alone. Talking about mental health is healing. You don’t leave any disease untreated hoping it’ll go away,” she continued.

“For parents who have children with depression – make noise and let leaders know more supports are needed.”

When asked what she thought about the evolution of the mental health conversation, she said  “there’s definitely more awareness, also because of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign. I’ve done research on the numbers of the campaign’s impact. The awareness has increased, and the stigma has been reduced, especially among the 18-24 year old group, they believe they have a voice, and things are shifting. But, we still have a long way to go.”

She applauded FMPSD’s support of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, mental health initiative inviting Canadians to tweet, text, or post on Facebook in support of mental health. FMSPD family broke 60,000 impressions and reached over 15,000 accounts for this year’s campaign held on January 28 on Twitter alone!

“I was amazed by your numbers. This is wow!”

“Mental illness can be a life and death issue. It is important to talk to young people about it. It’s not a taboo. When we can talk openly about it, they will become comfortable, because it’s part of everyday conversation. It’s when we’ve reached that point, then we can become a nation at its full potential,” Hughes added.

Hughes emphasized on finding help for mental health issues.

“Mental illness can be a life and death issue. It is important to talk to young people about it. It’s not a taboo. When we can talk openly about it, they will become comfortable, because it’s part of everyday conversation. It’s when we’ve reached that point, then we can become a nation at its full potential,” Hughes added.

“Education is very important. Language is important. Just last week, Red Cross announced they are adding basic psychological first aid training to their regular first aid training. They trained 400,000 people last year, so almost half a million Canadians will be trained on mental health first aid this coming year. These things need to become mainstream; or how else do you deal with it? We need to be able to do this. I didn’t know how to deal with a loved one’s loss two weeks ago to suicide. I’m still trying to figure out the language.”

During the media scrum, she talked about her friend, Paulie O’Byrne, who is a suicide risk, and writes a blog called I’m1in5.

“Reading Paulie’s blog taught me a lot. When we talk about those who die by suicide, it’s as if they’ve committed a crime, you can’t talk about them like that. They’ve died because of a sickness. Reading his blog helps me. A crisis line is his lifeline. He can’t go to his family and friends with this, he says, he can’t burden them. It helped me with what to say, and to realize that you are just there until professional help comes. You cannot be that professional person.”

Dr. Brenda Sautner, Associate Superintendent, Education & Administration was the lead organizer of the professional development day. A continuous champion of school-based mental health, she was delighted with the overwhelming support from our profession and our community, adding it’s all about meeting the needs of our students and staff.

“The promotion of mental health and wellness, physical health and social emotional health is critical to student achievement. Ms. Hughes brought the conversation on mental health to the highest level with all our staff for all our students. Thanks to Clara Hughes for helping FMPSD be mentally well for our students.”

FMPSD also put mental health advocacy in action raising over $2100 for the Canadian Mental Health Association through raffles and special couch seats for the talk. Hughes added $1000 of her own to the funds raised by staff.

– Connect Weekly –