In March, Movember Mental Health Ambassador Nick Frendo attempted to cycle 4,382 kilometres. That number - 4,382 - represents the number of men in the UK who took their own lives in 2017; Nick says he was almost number 4383. While his March challenge was unfortunately curtailed by coronavirus restrictions, with social distancing and isolation now in force, the message about mental health that Nick is dedicated to spreading is perhaps more necessary than ever. Nick spoke to road.cc’s Matt Lamy about why being in isolation shouldn’t mean being isolated.
r.cc: Why did you attempt to ride 4,382 kilometres last month?
NF: The main reason I rode was to raise money for men’s charity, Movember. But I rode that specific distance because my connection with Movember is mental health and suicide prevention, and back in 2017 I twice tried to take my own life. That year, 4,382 men took their own lives in the UK, so that’s why I chose that distance.
r.cc: Tell us a little more about your story? Why did you get to a point in your life where you wanted to end it?
NF: There were so many different reasons for it. Growing up, I struggled to find a purpose. I couldn’t really maintain relationships or friendships – I just never really seemed to get anything in life right. Then, when I finally thought I’d achieved it with a successful cycle touring business and a family, it all crashed down badly and I eventually ran away and isolated myself. I got to the point where I wouldn’t talk to anyone about anything. I made my situation an awful lot worse by doing that.
Then it all came to a head. I found myself sat in my house, all by myself, analysing, criticising, finding everything that I could that I thought was wrong with me. I took the decision that I was of no use to anyone and I would keep destroying myself and other people’s lives, so what was the point of carrying on?
I went out for a bike ride with the aim of not returning. I went down my favourite descent in Girona on the wrong side of the road going as fast as I could, hoping I’d see a car. Fortunately I didn’t. After that I realised I needed help.
r.cc: What were your first steps to find that help?
NF: I’d already looked at getting professional help previously but never really felt like it worked. I hadn’t found the right therapist and it wasn’t really getting to the root of what my issues were. After the first attempt, it didn’t work for me. But after my second suicide attempt, I got emergency treatment and a very kind customer of mine at the time helped me out with a therapist.
That seemed to work but there was a year between me seeking help and then actually doing something concrete about it. I still hadn’t told anyone what I had done. I still hadn’t really accepted it myself. Although I was feeling better about where I was and what was going on, I still had a cloud over me and that cloud was that I was still bottling a lot of stuff up and not really telling my girlfriend or my kids or family and friends.
r.cc: What made the difference?
NF: Eventually I came back to London and I started riding with a lot of people who were younger than me. They appeared very open and they just talked. Eventually I was letting stuff slip, but bizarrely, as I was letting stuff slip, I was also feeling a lot better. Then I actually started talking to people properly and telling them how I was feeling and what I had done.
Then I decided to do a ride – I felt I wanted to do something and raise some money for charity – so I came up with a ride where I was going to ride across the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Dolomites and raise as much as I could for Movember. But I thought I could only do that and be genuine if I told people why I was doing it. That led me to telling everyone in my life what I had done and how I was. Then I opened up publicly and set out on this mission to help others.
How to spot the signs when it's more than just 'feeling a bit down':
r.cc: One of the interesting things about your story is that, when you were at your lowest, cycling was almost part of the problem because your job, your hobby and your life was all wrapped up in it. Cycling can be quite a solitary pursuit – how important is it to make sure you involve people in your life?
NF: For me, now that I’m a mental health ambassador for Movember, a lot of people who approach me are other cyclists. They just want to talk and I think I can now use cycling as a vehicle to spread my message. I think there is a lot of people, a bit like me, who have just started talking almost by accident to people they meet as they ride.
Every now and then when I was a tour guide, I would get quite uncomfortable because someone would start opening up to me when we were on a trip. We might be going up a climb and they had buried themselves getting to the top, they were mentally exhausted, they were physically broken, and I guess they felt quite vulnerable and they’d start talking. I always sort of felt, well, I’m just a tour guide, I’m not a therapist. But now I realise how important that is.
So, yes, I still ride a bike and I do it a lot, but the goal for me now is to reach people. I know there is a lot of people out there who are looking for help and looking for people to talk to, and cycling can make that really easy. If I can show what I have gone through and where I am now, I just hope I can inspire a few people to not isolate themselves like I did, not run away from whatever is troubling them, but just to reach out.
Professional help isn’t necessarily the answer for everyone – sometimes just a shoulder or a mate checking in with you. The whole cycling community is pretty incredible. I’ve turned up at various clubs and social rides and had people just start talking to me. That’s really encouraging and there’s a lot of people that just need a little nudge.
r.cc: What advice do you have for cyclists suffering mental health issues, or indeed anyone being affected by current events?
NF: Talk to someone. There is always someone there – you’re never alone. That’s the main thing I found. I wanted to be alone, I didn’t want to confront my issues, I didn’t want to talk to people. I felt shame, guilt, all sorts of negative thoughts about myself. But I started talking to people and the support that came out to me was incredible.
For me, it’s about finding a community, a support network, people you can talk with who you feel comfortable saying you’re not feeling great today. And make the most of your daily exercise allowance to ride and take a break and distract yourself from the other issues you are facing. But talking, for me, has been the most incredible thing.
r.cc: Are what signs should we be looking for that suggest someone might be in trouble?
NF: It’s not always obvious. I’m actually an introvert and quite quiet, so I found it really easy to hide, and people just assumed that’s the way I was and why I wouldn’t engage. But if you notice people are retreating, if they’re avoiding talking, if they’re isolating themselves – these are all tell-tales for somebody who is not feeling great.
I guess one of the important things is to ask someone if they’re OK. Nine times out of 10, if that person is like me, they’ll say, yeah, I’m fine. But actually you need to follow that up with ‘Are you really ok?’. You might get flicked off again, but the chances are that that second ‘Are you ok?’ will have a massive impact because that person then realises that you know they’re not fine. Asking twice is possibly the most important thing you can do.
Where to find help
r.cc: And what can we all do to help the cause of suicide prevention?
NF: Just listen. For me the most important thing is checking in. After I opened up about my problems, family and friends would check in. I wasn’t getting that before, but having a message from someone to say: ‘Are you OK?’ That can be huge and it still is.
It’s been a year and a half since I started out on this mission and people still check in on me. I’m still on a bit of a rollercoaster and I guess I probably always will be. But knowing that people care makes it much easier for me when I’m struggling to say, ‘I’m not OK today, can we have a chat?’
If you’d like to donate to the cause, Nick’s Movember donation page stays open until November.