The University of Alberta’s Varsity teams will be putting their endurance to the test this coming Saturday, April 1st at their second annual bike-a-thon, gearing up to address mental health at the University and to raise money for the Mental Health Foundation. Members of the Golden Bears and Pandas teams will be participating in the 24 hour event at the High Performance Training and Research Centre inside the Saville Community Sports Centre.
The 2017 bike-a-thon follows a highly successful first run in March 2016, spearheaded by one passionate student. Tim Hickson, captain of the Golden Bears Varsity soccer team, decided to end his silence surrounding his struggle with substance abuse and depression, and to raise funds and awareness for mental health. Tim says the following about his experience:
“4 years ago my life changed. For as long as I can remember, the game was what defined me. My depression got worse and I lost who I was. Depression lead to my substance abuse addiction and as that grew, my addiction lead to self harm. 1 in 5 Canadians will experience some sort of mental illness in their lives and 2 out of the 3 will suffer in silence, like I did. It is our job to speak out and end the stigma that surrounds Mental Health and to stop and re-evaluate how we can help someone in need. Its okay to not be okay.”
His varsity soccer team saddled up and peddled their way to $8,000, following a successful video campaign describing Tim’s personal investment in mental health awareness. More than the funds his team managed to raise, Tim is surprised at how much the initiative took off, and how much of a positive response he received. After the event, Tim says, many current and past students reached out to him about their own experiences facing mental illness. An alumni of one of the University’s varsity teams wrote to him: “It’s about time.” It had never dawned on anyone before that they could get help from their own team.
Tim is “the driving force” behind a growing conversation about mental health in the University athletics department, says Associate Athletics Director Vang Ioannides. “It’s been a real eye-opener for us that so many athletes are affected; a year and a half ago, we wouldn’t know where to go for help.” Tim believes that the event’s success in encouraging conversation about mental health is one factor that led to Bell Let’s Talk broadening their scope to student athletes, a “massive avenue that few are looking at.” Tim and Vang look to the Student-Athlete Mental Health Initiative (SAMHI) as inspiration for how their own faculty can approach mental health issues.
The environment in athletics can be especially stressful; on top of a normal course load, players must make time for team practice and personal workouts. There is pressure to push yourself. Like many student athletes, Tim quietly bore the weight of his struggle with mental health, hoping to stay under the radar. It was only his realization that other students were suffering as well that prompted him to take action. In particular, he recalls his sister, the athletic therapist for a University team, coming home and discussing feelings of helplessness-she didn’t know how to help her team cope.
Mental health is increasingly being addressed at the University level; Tim says that professors in his classes now regularly bring up the topic and encourage students to access the many resources on campus. Still, there is a great need to continuously address the issue head-on. Creating a sense of normalcy is important in order for students to feel compelled to reach out to available services.
This year Tim has enlisted all of the University of Alberta varsity teams for another 24 hour bike-a-thon, with all proceeds going to the Mental Health Foundation. The physical strenuousness of the event is important to its message, says Tim; staying on a bike for hours at a time might seem tough, but it is nothing compared to what people are going through inside their own heads. The willingness of his fellow students, many of whom haven’t personally struggled with mental illness, to help is a positive sign to Tim, and he’s excited to get back on a bike. “At some point in an athlete’s life, they will go through something like this; they’ll realize that what they’re feeling is more than a bad day. It’s okay to talk about it. It’s okay to ask for help.”
Tim aims to build on the success of last year, in the hope that the bikeathon will not only become a yearly fundraiser, but a campus-wide event. You can drop by anytime between 2PM on April 1st and 2PM on April 2nd to show your support, or you can donate here.