World Mental Health Day

October 10th was World Mental Health Day.  With incidences of depression, suicide and mental illness on the increase I believe it is important that we do all we can to remove the stigma around mental illness and share personal stories.

As someone who suffers from depression and as recently as last year couldn't see a way out I felt it was important to share some of my story.  Additionally with numerous incidences of bullying, intimidation and more tragically suicide being linked to elite sporting bodies I am hoping my story will change the sometimes damaging culture that contributes towards mental illness in some elite sporting organisations.

In January 2019 I was selected to be the Lead Performance Coach for Triathlon Scotland, beating an international field of candidates. Upon being selected I was filled with pride, excitement and a natural dose of trepidation. It meant moving our young family from Australia to Scotland, selling our coaching business and everything we owned, re homing our pets and for me personally, leaving 2 teenage sons behind.

The opportunity though was fantastic and as a family we decided we would go all in. Embrace the lifestyle and make the most of living abroad while our 2 sons Finn and Charlie were young. And from a career perspective it was everything I had been chasing. A chance to work in high performance sport, challenge myself as a coach and lead a national program. A dream job for me.

Also being part of the British triathlon program was appealing and the chance to learn from the other coaches, practitioners and athletes within the system. Visa’s were organised, a place to live arranged and flights booked. We were away and before too long I found myself in Scotland.

Fast forward to the end of March 2020 and my contract was terminated. It was my worst nightmare. No job, a family to support and being stuck in a foreign Country due to COVID19. I was in the midst of a major depressive episode with suicidal thoughts and couldn’t see a way out. Were it not for my wife, Suzanne and a few special people within the Scottish community I fear what would have happened.

So how did I get to that position? How did a dream job turn into a living nightmare? Much of what happened is already public knowledge due to the Sunday Times and Tri247 coverage of the circumstances leading to my termination. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/absence-of-leadership-claim-made-against-toxic-triathlon-scotland-mwt0tq967?fbclid=IwAR0EjF-uV86vWggeHc_9ilByUosVCvKLsC_wCLeqMTIweRbVsiMNCbYsIGo

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/athlete-driven-to-self-harm-by-culture-at-triathlon-scotland-sdh36m0sw?fbclid=IwAR0GCh7ZP-x_sG0JYN_-BPYdZ0BXu66ZtSaS91SaZkALMhtU_HRyVzY0dfI

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/triathlon-scotland-to-face-legal-action-0frkvcqjl?fbclid=IwAR1odXApRrlC2DQyFmsV0MACZ3O4VlxHImncfQeyoMzoAdxGqtsIlpLnN_k

https://www.tri247.com/triathlon-features/opinion/sunday-times-triathlon-scotland?fbclid=IwAR23U9yojKjkJQHpMLjmb81jVYxO5BFsYTGweZOX88bcbhpNMcK0JOK089k

In December of 2019, I officially became a whistle blower on Triathlon Scotland. Upon arriving in Scotland as quoted in the Sunday Times, “I was shocked and appalled” at what I was hearing and seeing. In my view a complete lack of leadership and a cover up of years of bullying, intimidation and harassment.

When I started work my first intention was to get to know the various stakeholders, speak to athletes current and past and coaches current and past. It was disturbing when speaking to these people how they viewed the Governing Body, in particular the leadership. Whilst I found this information disturbing to hear I wanted to make my own judgements. I also saw it as a great opportunity to turn things around. Bring the triathlon community together towards a common goal and shared vision.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t too long before I too found myself the victim of the same bullying and intimidation others had warned me about and experienced personally. Having spent the first 13 years of my professional life as a Police Officer I had fortunately taken notes of the conversations I had and also took statements from people that complained of similar behaviour. Life teaches you much due to experience and I knew I would need to protect myself in such a situation.

I soon realised I would need formal legal representation when leadership were doing their best to force me to resign. It was clear that I was not welcome and essentially I had no rights when it came to employment law. When I spoke to my legal representative, Julie Barnett about what I had experienced and what many others had also experienced I made the decision to become a whistle blower.

I felt it was the only option. There had been no accountability and I had spoken to too many people that had their lives permanently affected by Triathlon Scotland. Those responsible needed to be held accountable for their actions.

And Triathlon Scotland is a National Governing Body that receives public funding so it was a matter of public interest. I also knew personally by taking this action that I had everything to lose and nothing to gain. I was risking everything in terms of my professional career and reputation.

The evidence that I had was presented to the Triathlon Scotland Board, Sport Scotland and the British Triathlon Federation. The Triathlon Scotland Board appointed themselves to conduct their own investigation into my allegations. I was not comfortable with this decision as due to the severity of my allegations I felt at least it would warrant an independent body to properly investigate.

Being a former Police Officer I was also concerned about numerous aspects of the investigation as was my legal representative, Julie Barnett. At no time did we feel it was an independent investigation. While all this was happening, my mental health was detoriating. I was unable to attend work and my Doctor signed me off work. Safe to say it was a horrible time in my life. One that I would not wish upon my worst enemy.

We were not comfortable with the investigation and felt it was far from independent. Therefore, we made the decision to go to the media. Through a mutual contact I was put in touch with Mark Palmer, one of Scotland’s leading sports journalists. I could not have asked for a better person to cover the story and do a thorough investigation. Mark is a man of integrity, has years of experience and straight after our first meeting he put my fears at rest. He assured me he would do a proper investigation.

Right from my first meeting with Mark, I have found him to be highly credible, engaging, principled and precise. The experience he detailed would have been compellingly newsworthy enough in itself, but we felt it key to establish whether it was a one-off or part of a wider pattern. After speaking to a variety of current and former athletes, coaches, parents and volunteers, it became clear that Mark’s experience is far from unique, something we were able to detail in our follow-up articles. The personal toll of what Mark has lived through is obvious and should be deeply concerning for all involved in elite sport. In so many areas, collectively we can and must do much, much better, and the only way that is going to happen is through those brave enough to put their heads above the parapet and challenge the status quo.” Mark Palmer Sunday Times

I also had the support of people like World renowned Triathlon coach, Darren Smith. In fact, Darren had the same position in Scotland from 2000-2004 before he went on to coach multiple World Champions, Olympians and Olympic Medalists. After leaving Scotland Darren stayed in contact with many of the athletes and coaches in the Scottish system.

When I first got the position, Darren told me to beware of ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ as he found the environment to be very political and knew that other coaches and athletes had been having problems similar to mine. He stated categorically when interviewed by Mark Palmer that my circumstances were not isolated.

Despite the evidence I had presented and the support of people such as Darren none of my allegations were upheld by the Board’s ‘independent’ investigation. I have still not been given a copy of the Board’s report. It was presented to me in a meeting with two members of the Board where I was able to read through it in their presence. After that meeting, they decided my contract would be terminated due to a breakdown in relationship with leadership.

At the same time COVID19 engulfed the World, borders were being shut down, flights cancelled and an uncertain future for us all. For us as a family we had two days to pack up our life in Scotland and get on a plane back to Australia. We had to leave many possessions behind and pack our life into 3 suitcases and get on a plane to Brisbane.

Next steps?

Two weeks in a Brisbane hotel lockdown in March 2020 followed which in many ways was a positive. It allowed me personally just to reflect, think and even though I could not see them be close to loved ones and friends. I ate too much but the time with the family was priceless with lots of laughs and cuddles. It was the first step in my recovery. Nowhere to be except play with my sons, read some books and watch some movies. I was still not at the point where I wanted to think about what’s next in terms of my professional career, but I could feel my brain slowly wanting to think again.

When I did start to think about what’s next the feelings of despair, failure, anger, resentment, fear and inadequacy took over. What the hell had happened? How did it happen? What do I do now? Questions that I did not really have answers for at the time.

My first steps in my road to recovery all revolved around my health. I started writing blogs as a strategy to help keep me accountable, doing some training again and eating better. I began to lose unwanted kilos, was sleeping better and moving on from what happened.

After hotel quarantine we moved to Noosa on the Sunshine Coast without a plan other than to spend time together as a family, allow me to heal and think about what was next.

However, there were frequent ‘wobblies’. These wobblies or meltdowns would hit for no unknown reason. Crying, fatigue and a desire to lock myself away.

I put strategies in place to help me when this happens. Stop, take a breath, observe and proceed. Rest if I need to, go for a walk, listen to some music or play with the kids are the go to activities that help me move forward. Through out that time my wife Suzanne was amazing. She encouraged me to rest, exercise and be there to talk to. I can’t begin to thank her for everything she did and the strength she displayed in holding our family together through the crisis that we were in.

Through out 2020 I continued to have many ups and downs. Frequent counselling, many days where I was unable to do anything productive and a two week stint in mental health clinic in August 2020 that was the real turning point.

After that I began to get more involved in our online coaching business World Multisport and each day ensuring I stayed in my routine. 'Win the morning, win the day.'

We made the decision to move to New Plymouth where Suzanne was born and raised.  Be closer to her family and raise our 2 boys in a beautiful place.  So in December 2020 we had another 2 weeks in hotel lockdown in Auckland before settling in New Plymouth.

Since arriving we have started our local coaching business in New Plymouth, have a World Multisport hub in Taupo and launched the new Coastal Five running event. The community have been fantastic in embracing what we are offering and for me personally 2021 has been a fantastic year, especially compared to the nightmare of 2019 and 2020.

When I set my mind to something, I can be very driven and passionate. Sometimes too much so but I know it helps with giving purpose in my life and manage my depression.

I share this to show others who feel as though there is no way out,  there is always hope.  And in COVID engulfed World we currently live in I believe it is important to have hope, purpose and love.  A study conducted by Stanford University on happiness concluded that humans need love and something to do, a purpose.

Fortunately I have a loving family and my life again has purpose with my coaching.

About Mark

Mark is one of Australia's most experienced and knowledgeable triathlon coaches. With over 25 years experience coaching at all levels from kids, youth, adult and elite professional athletes across the World. He loves seeing people change their lives through triathlon.

4 Comments

  1. Greg Chapman on October 13, 2021 at 12:46 am

    Thanks for sharing Mark

  2. DAVID CRERAR on October 13, 2021 at 3:20 am

    Hi Mark
    Thank you for sharing your story.
    My wife Susan has MS and I help her quite a bit with transfers around the house every day, and every night.
    I also run a business from home, and currently am trying to train for the IronMaori in December 2021. Although this may be very optimistic in terms of it actually being held.
    There are good times and not so good times.
    Fortunately my training helps me keep my body in shape, and take my mind away from the day to day. But what I wanted to say, is that having personal expectations can be too much, and I need personally need time to muck around, and let everything take its course.
    Thanks very much again for your story.
    Kind regard
    David Crerar

  3. rose on October 13, 2021 at 3:36 am

    Thank you Mark for sharing this story. It’s courageous to tell a dark side however mental health concerns should be a conversation ideally the same as we have when we have a cold or flu… or even something of ordinary commentary between community.

    Remind yourself that the integrity one demonstrates to blow the cover on indecency will at times be detrimental to your mental health but, it’s the right thing to do!

  4. Moira on October 13, 2021 at 10:43 pm

    Wow! Courageous. What a horrible experience for you, and seemingly the experience of many in the sporting field.

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