Imagine rowing in a crew, doing what you’ve done before thousands of times for many hours, weeks, months and years and suddenly forgetting how to take a stroke. Desperately trying not to let it show or catch a crab and let the crew down. It sounds like one of those bad dreams you might get in the run-up to a big event. But for one member of my rowing club it was a reality. A founding members of the current women’s squad, Carolyn Potter suffered from bipolar disorder and this is exactly what would happen to her when she was rowing. Having now left the club because of an injury, she has courageously come forward to talk about her mental health history as part of the Time to Change mental health campaign which aims to improve attitudes to mental health in workplaces, clubs and societies. It is, she says, time to talk about mental health in rowing.

Although for many people rowing is the one thing that keeps their anxious or depressive thoughts at bay, mental health problems can reach a point where the very thing that makes them feel better is almost impossible. Carolyn explains. “I remember frantically scrabbling to synchronise my brain with my hands and the blade and make all the movements in the right order again. And again the next time it happened. And silence that voice – You can’t do it – you’re rubbish. My bipolar disorder makes my brain slow down with depression but also speed up at other times. When rowing is all about timings and synchronisation of the crew and sustained training, it’s hard to deal with without letting others down and letting it show.”

Carolyn battled on. “Like many with depression, I could still interact with others, even laugh, and that in itself really helped. But this is only ‘papering over the cracks’ and alone again, mood can dive and self-esteem with it. In a way it’s your own worst enemy too because no-one realises you are struggling. I often went straight back to bed and hid under the covers for the rest of the day. Some days I would force myself out of bed in the morning, get all my kit on and set out walking across the bridge but lose my nerve and duck into the subway to turn back home and to back to bed.”

It must, she acknowledges, have been confusing for her crewmates. “With mood changes come differences in ability but especially in interaction, confidence, impatience, (over) reaction, etc..” Carolyn believes that talking openly would have helped. “So much of this is better dealt with all round if everyone knows what is happening. But mental health is so hard to talk about.”

That’s why she has agreed to go public, not only to members of our club, but to the world at large. With at least one in four people suffering from mental health problems in any one year, the likelihood is that you or some of your rowing friends are dealing with some form of mental health issue. But in a sport where we’re constantly being told how important it is to be mentally strong, it takes a brave person to speak up about their problems. Nobody wants to seem weak when crew selection is coming up. Ironically, according to Carolyn the very tools that will help you develop mental strength in rowing are the same as those that will help with many mental health issues.

So we need to create an environment that makes it easier for people to speak up. We can, says Carolyn, start by actively addressing our minds to mental health and what we can do for club mates with mental health issues both now and in the future. She believes we need at least to do the following:

  1. Learn more about different mental health conditions and how they can be noticed;
  2. Provide an open atmosphere where people feel that they can talk about their condition – maybe to a nominated individual rather than the whole club;
  3. Recognise that there WILL be people with mental health conditions among them; and
  4. Realise that, especially rowing in crews, mental health is as important as physical fitness in success for all.

We need, she says, to keep an eye out for clubmates and have a kind word if they need it. “Don’t be afraid to encourage and signpost them to experts who can help if you can’t. If you’re not sure how to approach someone you think needs help, it’s often easier to start by telling them about someone you know who seems to display similar mannerisms/symptoms.”

So let’s start talking about it right now, both amongst ourselves and at club level. Rowers are amongst the kindest, most supportive and most community-minded people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, so the only thing that’s holding us back is knowing what to say and when to say it. Let’s learn as much as we can and be brave enough to have that quiet word instead of staying silent. There’s lots of useful advice and information on the Time to Change website – check it out and start talking today.

And a huge thank you, Carolyn, for agreeing to share your story here.