Mental Health: Some Progress


Clara Hughes is a well-known Canadian athlete.  She is the only person to have won multiple medals at both the Winter and Summer Olympics. The medals were in cycling 1996 and speed skating 2002, 2006 and 2010.

At the age of 38 she made a comeback at the 2012 Olympics in London, placing 5th in the cycling time trials. Clara was not always an athlete.

As a teenager she rebelled, in part, because of her parents’ marriage breakdown.   At the age of 13 she was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, getting drunk and shortly thereafter, started to do drugs. After seeing Canadian speed skater Gaetaen Boucher win Olympic medals she began to speed skate…she was 16.  The next year she started to cycle. 

In spite of her athletic accomplishments she began to suffer from depression which almost derailed her life.  The depression surfaced after winning two bronze medals in Atlanta in 1996. She did not know what to do.  Speaking to someone about it was taboo, and she thought of quitting, thinking sports was  the cause. 

She, however, did break her silence, speaking with her doctor who told her, “We are going to get you better.” This gave her hope and she started to take steps to get out of her despair.

It took many years, but eventually she and Bell Canada connected, and in 2013 she became the spokesperson for the Bell mental health programme, LETS TALK:  https://letstalk.bell.ca/

The Bell programme was started in 2010 with the purpose of getting people to talk about their mental health problems and reduce the stigma associated with it. It was a great fit. A communications company with money and an important cause, and a revered, well-known, successful athlete with a personal mental health story.

Clara’s role was to talk about her condition and try to remove the stigma attached to mental health issues.

In 2014, she rode her bike 11,000 km across Canada in 110 days and through 105 communities, meeting, speaking, and listening to thousands of people about her, and their, mental health struggles. 

Clara Hughes

She encouraged people suffering with mental health issues to talk with someone and seek professional help if necessary, and those who did not suffer to listen, help, and understand. She often commented that while funding is inadequate, there is GOOD professional HELP available. The talking and listening helped everyone, including Clara, and did much to reduce the stigma around mental health.  She has also written a book about it.  https://www.simonandschuster.ca/books/Open-Heart-Open-Mind/Clara-Hughes/9781476756998

Today, Clara is more widely-known for her contribution to mental health than her sports successes, and the LET’S TALK programme, too is a big winner. 

Initially, Bell donated five cents for every call/conversation/text or tweet about mental health (using #BellLetsTalk) on a specified day.

 Since 2010, there have been over 1 billion mental health  conversations, resulting in Bell donating approximately $150 million to over 1400 programmes, including many Indigenous programmes.  An estimated 5.5 million people have been helped by these programmes.

This year, 2023, Bell made a flat donation of $10 million and added TAKING SPECIFIC ACTION to their mandate. Bell has also trained over 14000 of their own managers about mental health issues, and encouraged other companies to do likewise.

They have also committed to providing unlimited mental health care for their employees and their families, making it the most appreciated benefit of being a Bell employee. Bell believes this commitment has added to their bottom line.

Bell’s contribution has been controversial. Critics point out how badly they have treated some of their own employees, and they have also profited by increased use of their communications  systems.. sometimes by poor and vulnerable people. They believe Bell benefits more than their other beneficiaries. While Bell has benefited, so have have millions of others. 

Without getting into details, to me it underlines the old adage that being socially responsible is GOOD BUSINESS. (See also my Nov. 2022 blog on the ESG movement which encourages companies to have the principles of enviromental, social and good governance as a key part of their corporate strategy).

With their Let’s Talk initiative it was not a big surprise to read of Bell’s recent new partnership with Bank of Montreal (BMO) and the Kids Help Phone line (KHP).  Both Bell and BMO were founding partners of the KIDS Help Phone Line in 1989.

KHP focuses on teen mental health by encouraging teens to call 1 800 668-6868 to talk about their concerns be it bullying, abuse, friends, emotional, family or anything connected with their emotional  well-being.  KHP has trained professionals to speak with the young people in a confidental way in a multitude of languages, at any time and at no cost.

The biggest concerns amongst the 14 million calls received by KHP since the first of the pandemic were anxiety, stress, relationships, depression and thoughts about suicide. Many of these young people have no one else they can talk to.  https://kidshelpphone.ca/

BMO and Bell have each donated $15 million to KHP, and are encouraging other individuals and corporations to join in the campaign called, “FEEL OUT LOUD” to raise  $300 million.  The money is to be used to expand clinical services, create more equitable access to mental health services for  individuals and communities, transform mental health services and expand virtual care.

DeMar DeRozen

Clara, Bell, BMO and KHP are not the only ones encouraging people to speak out and removing the stigma.  So too have prominent athletes like gymnast Simone Biles, hockey player Carey Price and basketball star DeMar DeRozan.  As have former Finance Minister and Ambassador Michael Wilson, and his wife Margie who lost their son Cameron to suicide. In his eulogy to his son, as highlighted in his recent posthumously released book, “Something within Me,”  Wilson said “Cameron wanted to love and he wanted to be loved in return. He wanted to be close to many of you here today, but his illness prevented it  A few of you whom he permitted to get close to him found it comfortable. But it was difficult for him to reach out to you. His illness wouldn’t permit it. Finally – abruptly – it overwhelmed him.” 

While depression is the most commonly mentioned mental disorder, the  American Psychiatric Association lists over 300 mental disorders in their DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual on Mental Disorders).

Mental Health Problems affect us all.  It is estimated by CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), that 1 in 5 people in Canada suffer a mental illness. Thirty-nine per cent of Ontario high school students indicate a moderate to serious level  of psychological distress, (depression or anxiety). 

There is a huge need for more research, professionals, money, services and understanding.  It is though GOOD NEWS that people and organizations like those mentioned above and thousands of others, have led the way by stepping  up to help.

Till next time,

Chris Snyder

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