NEWS_Mental_Health -0320
Photo by Saima Asad

Clara Hughes keynote highlights campus mental health event

By Saima Asad, March 7 2017 —

Six-time Olympic medallist Clara Hughes visited the University of Calgary on March 7 to celebrate the U of C’s Campus Mental Health Strategy (CMHS), which launched in December 2015.

The event, which took place in MacHall A and B, coincided with the official opening of the Campus Community Hub behind Yamnuska Hall. Various events were held the same day across campus to promote mental health and wellness in the campus community.

Prior to Hughes’ keynote address, Students’ Union vice-president student life Patrick Ma provided opening remarks by speaking to the importance of the U of C’s commitment to mental health and the student experience.

“The years we spend here on this campus are transformative,” Ma said.

Ma also mentioned the results of the National College Health Assessment (NCHA).

“Over half of students surveyed felt hopeless in this past year with 42 per cent saying they were so depressed it was difficult to function,” he said.

U of C provost and vice-president academic Dru Marshall spoke about the U of C’s work regarding mental health.

“We’re going to make a commitment as a university community to help destigmatize mental illness and really focus on mental wellness,” Marshall said.

She said the mental health strategy came from a place of caring and need. Marshall said that mental health issues were the number one reason staff took time off from their sick leaves this past year and that the 2014 Brentwood tragedy and the results of the NCHA  demonstrate the importance of addressing mental health at the U of C.

“Those results for us were shocking and they indicated a real need on our campus relative to our students,” Marshall said.

Hughes delivered a keynote speech entitled, “Open Hearts, Open Minds.” Although she did not obtain a degree from the U of C, Hughes identified herself as a sporting alumna due to the years she spent training at the Olympic Oval. She also said she feels a strong connection to Calgary, as it was the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics that inspired her to compete. Before that Hughes described herself as “lazy.”

“I was the kid that played soccer goalie because I didn’t want to run,” she said.

Hughes won four Olympic medals in speed skating and two in cycling, making her the only athlete to win medals in both the Winter and Summer Olympics. She has since acted as a spokesperson for the Bell Let’s Talk campaign and is a member on the international board of directors for Right to Play.

In her keynote, Hughes’ thanked the U of C for its work on mental health and spoke openly about her own struggles.

“There are very, very, very few [universities] that have not only implemented a mental health strategy. but even started to think about writing one. So thank you U of C for being ahead of the curve,” Hughes said.

Hughes spoke about her own experience with mental health.

“I have struggled and I have suffered,” she said. “I was five-years old and I was a child of a family of dysfunction and alcoholism.”

Hughes also mentioned her father’s alcoholism, her sister’s drug abuse and her will to overcome the challenges that she faced growing up. Hughes said her battle with mental health is ongoing, but that she wants to see more open dialogue on campuses regarding this issue.

U of C psychology professor and CMHS director Andrew Szeto provided closing statements.

“Over the last year, we’ve made a ton of progress,” Szeto said. “Essentially what we’ve done is build the foundation to make a successful strategy for the next four or five years. What we’ve done is create an implementation committee as well as get that funding in place to set that foundational piece.”

Following the speeches, a portion of the MacHall concert hall was set up for attendees to paint on canvases that would later form a mural in the Campus Community Hub in Yamnuska Hall.

Over 200 people attended the event.

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