Between work and educational stress, the constant buzzing and whirring of the smartphones and social media apps in our pockets, existential threats bolstered by a haughty political climate and worries of the future, the normal day-to-day for an average Canadian is fraught with mental strain.

Sometimes, you just need to go for a run.

An often-cited report conducted by the Canadian Mental Health Association found that in any given year, one in five Canadians will experience a mental health issue or illness. Youth Mental Health Canada estimates 3.2 million Canadians between the ages of 12-19 are at risk of developing depression. Calgary’s Distress Centre, the city’s only 24/7 crisis intervention service supported mostly by volunteers, reported receiving nearly 79,000 calls in 2017 alone.

Amy Li, founder of Outrun the Stigma, a University of Calgary club-turned-not-for-profit, was one of those volunteers when she decided that something more had to be done.

“One of the things I noticed was that not a lot of people were really aware of what mental health resources were out there in the community, especially with students on campus,” Li remembers.

Li, enrolled in the neuroscience program at the University of Calgary then, and who is now heading off to Stanford to pursue a graduate degree in community health and prevention research, decided to start a Distress Centre on campus with a team of like-minded students.

“We had this really great group of executives who were really passionate about mental health, a really energetic group of young people” says Li. “And then, through our discussions, we realized, you know what?, there’s no runs that promote mental health.”

“There’s a run for Alzheimer’s, there’s a run for breast cancer, but there’s nothing that was really created by youth for mental health awareness … we felt like there was a gap there that we could fill.”

AmyLiBODYAmy Li, founder of Outrun the Stigma, credits the not-for-profit’s longevity and growth to her solid team of “young professionals,” which has risen to 60 volunteers across three cities. Photo by Alec Warkentin.

Outrun the Stigma, the response to this gap, was formed in 2013. That first year saw around 270 people donate and run the U of C campus, raising nearly $4,600 for Distress Centre Calgary. Six years later, they’ve raised over $80,000, and have expanded to include annual runs in Edmonton and Toronto. They’re also in talks to create Outrun the Stigma chapters in Vancouver and Ottawa.

“For Outrun the Stigma, we want to be seen as more than just a run,” says Li. “We want to be seen as a group of young people who want to bring together the community and start discussions about mental health.

“We found that hosting a run was a great way to gather the community, and that’s why we’ve tried to make it as inclusive as possible. We try to host them in places that are wheelchair-accessible, or where people could bring their kids or their dogs, and we make sure there’s always a walking part of the run as well for the people that don’t enjoy running.”

This year’s run, which takes place Oct. 21, will mark the first time it will be held off the University of Calgary campus. Runners will meet at Eau Claire Market in downtown Calgary on the morning of the event. The off-campus change is to facilitate a potentially larger number of attendees, with previous runs being capped at 300 as per the rules of the university.

“Last year was around 300 people, which is why we decided to move it … and we’ve been close to that 300 mark for the past couple of years,” says Li. This year’s event will also feature a mental health expo, including speakers from the community sharing their mental health stories.

All told, while donations are part of what makes Outrun the Stigma a success, Li notes that the act of running itself can be seen as a therapeutic tool to improving mental issues. 

“For me, personally, and I know for a lot of my friends, there is that mental health component [to running],” says Li. “It’s what I do at the end of a really stressful week, just knowing that I could go out for a few hours and go for a run.

“For different people, it’s different things. It doesn’t have to be running. It could be going to dance class, or going to a movie,” says Li, whose future plans for Outrun the Stigma include even larger goals.

“We’re really trying to expand across Canada, and leave a mark in each province and territory … going to places where resources aren’t as readily available.” 

Registration for the Oct. 21 Outrun the Stigma run can be accessed at Registration costs $20, and goes to supporting future runs.

Editor: Ian Tennant |

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