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Taking on mental illness – one pedal stroke at a time

[Trigger warning: this post references suicide]

Rob is a mental health advocate and supporter of MQ. Here he shares his experience, and explains why he's decided to take on a cycling challenge MindCycle in support of MQ. 

Looking back on my life, I can see there were signs of my bipolar in my teenage years. I always strived to be the centre of attention and wanted to be different. I was a risk taker from an early age, I was the kid climbing the highest tree and never really felt a sense of danger. And then at other times I would withdraw and shut myself away from people, taking solace in books. At the time I didn’t realise what it was, and as it continued into my twenties I came to the conclusion that it was just that I didn’t like people, that I was naturally anti-social.

It was on my 30th birthday that it finally dawned on me that this was more than just being a bit reclusive, and I may need to seek help. As it was a notable birthday, I had decided to celebrate by organising a dinner at Momo restaurant in London. It was set to be a fantastic night by all accounts, except that I wasn’t there. I was in a friend’s flat, alone, experiencing depression. It wasn’t just the dinner that I missed during this particular episode – I couldn’t face work and stayed away from the office for a few weeks. 

It was after this that I decided to seek help. The first diagnosis I received was for depression, and that was followed by a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar until further down the line when I began opening up about risk taking and bad decision making. I was then given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder II – a type of bipolar which is characterised by stronger, more pronounced periods of depression along with episodes of mania. 

15th months after my 30th birthday I tried to take my own life, and this was a particular turning point in how I approached managing my condition. I sought support through my GP and saw a lot of different therapists trying to find an option that worked for me. It took years to find support that felt right, and my journey of recovery has involved a lot of trial and error. My approach to treatment has been varied – I’ve tried medication, exercise and support groups, which have all played their part. 

These days I still struggle when experiencing periods of depression, and I find it difficult to function. At it’s worst I will spend a few days in bed. Other times I just need to back off and slow down, or take time away from seeing people. 

I think the biggest challenge I’ve faced in terms of my recovery is stigma. For years of getting therapy I was too concerned about what other people would think to be honest about it. So each time I attended a therapy appointment, I would put ‘physio’ in my work calendar. Stigma has been such a big barrier to be open and authentic. But also the lack of understanding and knowledge around bipolar means that treatment has been slow, and often relies on a trial and error approach. 

Whilst my bipolar can be hard to manage, especially when I am experiencing depression, there are certain points when it can be positive. There is a point on my personal mental health continuum where I am slightly manic, but not destructively so. In these moments I am highly creative, can achieve a huge amount and find it easy to inspire other people to join me in my journey. I LOVE these times. In fact, I came up with my MQ fundraising initiative ‘MindCycle’ in one of these moments. Lord Stevenson, MQ’s Founding Chairman, once told me of a quote from an old Times Health Correspondent “Thank God for bipolar people, without them we would not get anything done!” – that has really stayed with me.

I think our collective lack of openness is a contributing factor to wider understanding about mental illness. It’s frustrating that people still consider it to be binary - they think that you are either mentally well or mentally ill. But like our physical health we actually oscillate from one to the other. Once we start thinking like that then we can better look after the mental health of everyone.

I believe that there is still a lot to learn about how our brain works and what causes mental illness, and research offers a lot of hope for improving our understanding and making treatment more effective. I also think it could go a long way to help break stigma by providing evidence around the causes. From neuroscience to data analytics and AI – I’m excited about the potential research offers.

I have so many questions personally, that I hope research could answer. Along with better understanding the underlying causes and improving treatments, I’d like to see research look at how we can improve workplace wellbeing, from finding best practices for managing mental health in the workplace to showing the impact of business leaders speaking out about their own mental health challenges.

My main contribution in terms of mental health advocacy is through an organisation I set up called InsideOut, which aims to smash the stigma of mental illness in the workplace. One in ten people in the UK are affected by depression each year, and it’s predicted to be the world’s biggest health problem by 2030. The scale of mental health conditions is staggering, yet the level of resource invested in understanding these conditions is - quite frankly - a joke. More needs to be done and MQ are doing it!

The main focus of my work with InsideOut, a charity that I founded, is to smash the stigma of mental illness in the workplace. I got involved with MQ because along with tackling stigma, I also want to be part of the solution to mental illness. I believe that MQ is part of that solution.

I’m fundraising for MQ by carrying out a cycling challenge MindCycle. My plan is to visit workplaces across the UK whilst cycling the full length of the Tour de France on a static bike. I hope that people will come and cycle certain stages with me, and open up about their own mental illness while we ride together. If people want to donate, they can do so on my fundraising page.

MindCycle will be a tough challenge, physically and mentally. But the main thing that keeps me positive is purpose – which I am lucky enough to have found. My training is very goal orientated which will help, but the main thing which will keep me going is the fact that there are people relying on me to complete the challenge, and I can only do this if I am fit enough to succeed. During the event itself it will be the people supporting me and riding by my side that will be my motivation. That, and the fact that I will be making a difference and hopefully stimulating positive change.

My dream is that in 10 years time we won’t need to be tackling stigma, as it will no longer be an issue, and that mental health will be properly considered and looked after in the workplace. MindCycle is just the start of my journey, but I’m excited about where it might take me.   

Last updated: 4 May 2018

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