Opening up about mental health
‘I’m trying to raise awareness of suicide and mental health and maybe play a small part where I can’
Trigger warning: this article discusses suicide. Scroll to the bottom for hotlines to call in the UK and US if you or someone you know is struggling with mental health.
After losing a dear friend to suicide, Owain has become an advocate for mental health. In opening up about how suicide has touched his life, he hopes to encourage others to share their experiences and struggles with mental health. Owain seeks to normalize such conversations that can be challenging and scary to navigate.
Read on for an intimate conversation with Owain about how he takes care of his own mental health, his late friend Siôn, and how he keeps Siôn’s memory alive.
How have you become so passionate about mental health?
I think mental health, and specifically men’s mental health, really changed my life a couple of years ago when I lost one of my closest friends to suicide. It had a massive impact on me and how I approach my life and also my own mental health. I’m trying to raise awareness of suicide and mental health and maybe play a small part where I can.
Why do you think people are sometimes hesitant to talk about mental health?
I'm not sure to be honest. I think that the classic answer is that it's that blokey kind of syndrome of not showing emotions and you have to be strong. By showing your emotions or crying or being upset about things is not being a man. That’s rubbish. And it needs to be talked about. I think the only way of doing that is other men standing up and speaking about their experiences and saying, ‘Yeah, I was in a really bad place, I was crying, I couldn't get out of bed.’ There's no shame in that. That's a completely normal part of human life. It needs to be discussed more and it is being discussed more. I’ve especially noticed with my peers and people of my age, it's a bigger thing. And I think part of that is because so many people have lost loved ones to suicide.
One of the reasons why I'm so passionate about this topic is because I have felt what it feels like to lose someone you truly, truly love to something which is preventable. After you go through that, I think it's natural for you to not want anyone else to go through what you've had to go through or what Siôn’s family had to go through. And I think it really is changing. I think it is. Mental health is now a big, big talking point. It is discussed a lot more and there is more funding going into it through charities like Movember or in the UK there’s Papyrus and Mind. There’s a lot more support going into it but I think there's still a long, long way to go.
"Siôn was just joy, energy, charisma, compassion."
What do you do to look after your own mental health?
I try to be a lot kinder to myself. In professional sports, it's easy to be very self critical. Everyone's always striving for more and wanting to improve year on year, race on race. If something doesn't go to plan, it's easy for me to be self critical so one thing I try to do is to look at the bigger picture in terms of not just cycling but in terms of my life, my happiness, my family's happiness, my partner's happiness. I think the main thing is not looking to blame it on someone or something I've done, but rather to accept it, to make the best of that situation and then try to move forward however possible, whether that's missing a training day because you are sick or whether something's completely out of your hands. Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture. Although I'm passionate and I love, absolutely love and adore what I do, it's still just riding a bike. There's a lot of bigger things going on. I try not to take for granted how fortunate I am to do what I do. I accept that there's a lot of sacrifices involved in that and it can be hard but I'm doing this because I want to do it. I choose to be a cyclist and to live the life I live. I try to take a bigger perspective on things and attempt to not get too caught up in the moment.
I've been very fortunate with the teams I've been part of. I also have to say EF has been really supportive. If there've been certain periods in my personal life where stuff hasn't been going to plan, they’ve been able to give me the space and the support I need. But I don't think that's the case with the whole professional peloton and it's something which can end up being overlooked. With the teams I’ve been part of and the friends and staff members I have within the professional peloton, I feel very fortunate to have a really good support network who understand me.
How does the bike connect to mental health for you?
For me, it's massive. Sometimes I'll be sat at home and I feel like I have a million and one different things running through my mind, whether that's cycling stuff, or training coming up, or my race program, or something I need to organize or whatever and my brain can almost feel so jumbled that I almost can't start doing one task because I feel a bit overwhelmed by it. And then as soon as I get on my bike, almost subconsciously, everything falls into place over the space of a three or four hour ride. I'm not even actively thinking about what's stressing me out or what's on my mind. I find clarity and nine times out of 10 if I am stressed or I'm feeling overwhelmed. I’ll come back after a ride and have a clear plan of what's the priority, what I need to sort now, what can wait till later. The bike gives me headspace and it gives me joy as well. Some of my favorite days are when I've had a bit of a miserable day on the bike, and I come back and I've completed the session, I've done the work and I remember that I’m moving in the right direction towards my goals. It gives me that satisfaction, that joy of ticking off the day and being proud of myself. Not forcing myself to do it, but being able to get myself through it.
"One of the reasons why I'm so passionate about this topic is because I have felt what it feels like to lose someone you truly, truly love to something which is preventable."
How do you try to honor Siôn’s memory?
I try to do it three-fold. In terms of me personally, I try to live my best life possible. Treat people how Siôn would treat people, with compassion and kindness. And always, always believe that anything is possible. He was always a big believer in that. He’d always say, ‘Why not?’ If you say, ‘There's not a chance I'm going to do this or that’ and he’d just say, ‘Why not?’ That was his answer. Nothing was out of reach. So from a personal point of view, I try to do that.
From a charitable point of view, I'm a trustee of the Siôn Mullane Foundation, which is a foundation we set up in Siôn’s name after he passed away. Essentially, the goal of the foundation is to give young people in Wales the opportunities they might not have because of their backgrounds and that's across a broad range of things, whether it's sport, education, drama, music, whatever. When we set up the foundation, we didn't want it to be linked only to mental health and depression and suicide because although that was a part of Siôn’s story, it wasn't who Siôn was himself. Siôn was just joy, energy, charisma, compassion. So that's what we wanted to get back to. This is something I'm really proud of and passionate about.
And then the third part of it is because men's mental health and suicide prevention specifically have become really important to me, I really want to try and play some kind of role in that even if it's a tiny role. If it helps one person, it's enough for me. I do a lot of work with Movember throughout the year, and obviously, now we're in November, so it's mustache growing season and fundraising season. It's always strange. It's a nice time of the year for me because it's a time when that conversation around mental health is really open and people are actively listening and reading about it. I think it makes a difference. But then also, it's also a sad time, because you read some of the numbers of suicides for men in the UK and worldwide and it's the number one killer of men over a certain age. So those are my three areas where I try to raise awareness in my own life, with the foundation and then with Movember.
Do you have any events planned for this November?
I’m very fortunate to have the support of Rapha UK this year for Movember. I’m doing two things. One is an open panel discussion called Unlocked with some other mental health advocates around depression, grief, suicide, and how cycling plays a role in it for us personally in with dealing with those issues. That's on the 17th of November.
The other part of it is I'm going to be riding from sunrise to sunset to raise funds for Movember on the 19th of November. I also did that last year and the main idea is just to have a really open space where anyone can turn up. There are going to be three different loops heading into different areas of London. Each loop will be around two hours at a steady speed. And just giving people the opportunity if they want to join us, if they want to chat with like minded people, and whether that's to open up about something they're struggling with, or their friend has been struggling with, or their experiences with mental health. Just to have a safe and open place where people want to speak about mental health and people are receptive to that conversation. That's the plan.
As you said, it’s Movember. How’s your mustache coming along?
I am growing a mustache but it's not going great at the minute. It's a slow progress. I can’t control it. I'm hoping by the end, there's something there.
For details on Owain’s events on November 17th and 19th, head here.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, there is help.
In the UK, call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline at 0800 689 5652
In the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)