Six-time Olympic medallist Clara Hughes may be known to Canadians for her sunny personality and megawatt smile, but she is opening up about her own battle with depression as part of a new campaign to break the stigma surrounding mental health issues.

Hughes is the new spokesperson for a five-year, $50 million campaign by Bell, which plans to buy CTV, to support a range of mental-health programs and to break the stigma surrounding mental illness. On Tuesday, Hughes joined Bell and BCE president and CEO George Cope in Ottawa to unveil the new initiative.

The first campaign is "Bell Let's Talk Day," designed to get Canadians discussing mental health.

Hughes said her goal as spokesperson for the initiative is to "open up the dialogue" for Canadians struggling with mental illness.

"That people feel that they can speak about any issues that they're having, any struggles that they're having, and not feel like it's their fault and not feel like they're to blame or that people are going to look at them in a strange way," Hughes told CTV News Channel Tuesday evening in an interview from Ottawa.

"I think that this campaign…is all about dialogue, it's all about breaking down these stigmas. It's many things, but first and foremost it is to tackle the stigma that's attached to mental issues and mental health issues."

At the press conference announcing her involvement in the campaign, Hughes revealed she had suffered from severe depression for two years after her first Olympic Games, calling it "the darkest days of my life."

"I've travelled across this country since our home Olympics back in February and so many Canadians say to me ‘I recognize you by your smile,'" Hughes said. "And I think it's time for me to share with people that I'm not always smiling and there are times that I went through, particularly two years after my first Olympics, where I couldn't smile. And it took a lot to come out of that depression."

Hughes said she relied on the support of family and friends to pull through, but knows that not all Canadians have the same support system, which is what makes the new campaign so important.

Hughes also said she has learned how factors such as good nutrition and regular physical activity can help keep her from slipping back into a depression.

"Not in the sense of training, nothing to do with training as an Olympic athlete," she said. "Just basic movement and physical activity has helped me enormously basically deal with all of these issues."

Cope said Bell will continue to donate to communities and charities across the country. But the company's prime "community investment" focus and the majority of its charitable spending will now be dedicated to the promotion and support of mental health across Canada.

"Mental illness impacts every person in Canada in some way, causes immense personal suffering and takes a heavy toll on our national economy," Cope said in a statement.

He said while progress has been made to address the impact of mental illness, "public understanding of the disease remains low."

Cope said one in five Canadians experiences a form of mental illness at some point in their lives, and mental illness is the No. 1 cause of workplace disability in Canada, accounting for 30 per cent of disability claims and 70 per cent of disability costs.

He also noted mental illness represents 15 per cent of Canada's health care burden but receives only five per cent of health care funding. He said the objectives of the mental health initiative will be to:

  • reduce the stigma still associated with mental illness
  • support new research
  • improve access to mental health care
  • develop mental health best practices for the workplace

"Mental illness affects our society more than any other major disease yet receives less funding than almost any other," Cope said. "Bell's mental health initiative is dedicated to addressing the problem."