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What's Rowing on in Your Head? - Thomas Nelson

My Story, Why Talking About It Saved Me, and Rowing’s Immeasurable Impact

Content Warning - Eating Disorders, Suicide

Hi! My name is Thomas, and I’m Dundee University Boat Club’s current Welfare Officer. My role is to maintain a healthy environment for club members’ mental health, offer them support and information on where to go and what to do if they have any problems. I also update a list of support available in the local area and online.

​This online mental health feature will focus on individual club members and their experiences with mental ill health to encourage people within and outside the club to talk about their problems, take the burden off themselves and hopefully find the relevant help they need. By sharing our experiences, we hope to reach people who have or are experiencing the same issues and reassure them that it will get better, help and support is out there, and that there are solutions.

My Dad, my sister Bethan, and I in the most recent photo I have of him

It took me a while to understand that time is often a great healer, and that talking to someone about my issues would make me feel better than I could have imagined. When I was 11 years old, the summer before I began attending secondary school, my dad passed away and I distinctly remember the feeling as if I’d just taken a sucker punch to my stomach. It took a while to sink in, and instead of allowing myself to grieve, or be angry about the fact that just under 12 years was all I was going to get with my dad, I bottled everything up. I didn’t talk about it and I didn’t cry, not even at the funeral.

By refusing to talk about how I was feeling everything became worse. As a result I internalised everything, developing a very poor self-esteem, anxiety issues and depression; all whilst continuing to appear fine to my family, friends, and school. One day, when I was 14, unfortunately, I’d had enough, and had decided that the best course of action was to end my life. Fortunately for me, though I didn’t feel it at the time, I had told a friend what I was doing, and he rang the police, who turned up after my attempt had failed.

At the time, I was very upset with my friend, I felt like he had let me down, but looking back I’m glad he did call the police. It alerted my family to the struggles I was experiencing, started to encourage me to open up about my issues (that took another two years to settle in though), and started to get me the help I needed. For the next two years I continued to struggle with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and had an unwillingness to work hard in the therapy I was doing. I viewed my mental illness as a safety net, and had the idea that if I didn’t try to get better, I wouldn’t be disappointed if I did try and failed, so what was the point in trying? My opinion of myself got so low that I began struggling with food and was obsessed about my weight. Things got bad enough that eventually I was taken to the doctors by my mum and was prescribed anti-depressants.

My Mum Liz and I in the gardens of Buckingham Palace celebrating my Gold DofE award

This time I committed to my medication and the therapy I was receiving, and along with the amazing support I received from friends and family, my mental health began to improve. I began talking to my ‘support network’ when any issues cropped up with my mental health. It took time, and a lot of effort, and it certainly was not easy at all, but I’m so glad that I did begin to talk about my mental health. Talking about it allowed me to find strategies useful to me and lifted my mood whenever I did so. It also helped my friends talk about their struggles when they heard me open up, as they knew then that they weren’t alone, had someone who understood, and even if I didn’t understand, was always happy to lend an ear. My experiences with poor mental health, and my recovery (which is still ongoing, everything takes time) have encouraged me to pursue a career as a clinical psychologist, as all I want to do in my life is to help people help themselves.

I hope I can also do the same during my time as Welfare Officer. This club was extremely welcoming to me back in my first year. It has given me opportunities to grow as a person, an athlete, and a boat-work expert; and rowing has had such an amazing impact on my mental health. It may be hard to imagine but being in a boat, rowing against the flow of a river at a fair pace clears my mind and makes me feel excellent, despite all the aches in my legs, my freezing toes, and my soaking kit. There’s something therapeutic about rowing for me, and it’s provided me with an excellent way to work out frustrations, release endorphins and has given me friends I hope to keep for life. I never would have joined this club if I hadn’t improved my mental health, as I would have been too anxious, and wouldn’t have made friends as quickly as I did. I would never have done any of those things if I hadn’t opened up about my struggles, been honest with myself and others and talked about my mental health.

My first race

I hope that in sharing this with you, you’ve found something that resonated, or that you feel a little less alone now, or that it’s helped you be brave and take the step needed to talk about mental health. Hopefully I’ve shown you how much talking about mental health can help; it’s not an instant cure, or a miracle medicine, but it helps. A lot. Of course I still struggle with self-esteem at times, I still miss my dad, so much so that it physically hurts sometimes, but I know that because I’ve talked about these problems before, I can do it again and at the very least, it makes things just a little better.

Remember, you’re not alone. Someone, somewhere, is on your side; and talking about your mental health will help you.

17 year old me thought this was a good look, 21 year old me disagrees

My family, without whose support I would be much worse off


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