‘Life will make you, before you make it.’ Nigel Owens Event
Lower 6th Development Intern and budding journalist Beth Winterbottom attended an event held on International Men's Day with Nigel Owens as guest speaker. Beth gives her us account of Nigel's speech.
Nigel Owens presenting on International Mens Day
Tuesday 19th November was International Mens’ Day and I attended a talk at the Aon Centre in the Leadenhall Building, London. The evening focused on how men can ‘lead by example’ to help boys and men tackle mental health issues such as addiction, insecurities or toxic masculinity. It was interesting for me as a female, to firstly understand just how hard men find it to speak about their emotions, but also to see that little by little and person by person, changes are being made so that boys and men can feel more comfortable speaking about how they feel and their mental health.
The evening kicked off with a panel of male employees from Aon who all discussed their own experiences with mental health. Hearing them speak with such raw emotion was equally poignant and uplifting, especially when describing how they overcame their problems which one speaker said felt like a ‘washing machine on a constant cycle.’ Three of the four men are part of Aon’s Mental Health Group and all of them stressed the importance of normalising talking about feelings amongst men as it ‘puts you on the right path.’ Aon, which has 27 offices in the UK, has trained 116 of their colleagues be Mental Health First Aiders. This involves teaching them how to provide immediate support to colleagues who are affected by mental illness, how to spot the symptoms and to raise awareness, tackle stigma and encourage more open conversations about mental health in the workplace. It is especially important that these kinds of schemes are being rolled out, as almost 300,000 people lose their job in the UK every year due to a long term mental health condition, and it is estimated that 15 out of 100 people in the workplace in the UK are suffering with poor mental health. However, it is not only Aon that are active in this space; ‘Unilever’, ‘Iceland’ and ‘Ernst and Young’ are all in the top five of UK businesses that set the standard for supporting employee’s mental health.
The main speaker for the evening was Nigel Owens MBE, world renowned rugby referee. He spoke about his own harrowing experiences with anxiety and depression in his early teens due to bullying. However, it was after leaving secondary school and working on a farm at the age of 19 that Owens realised there was something different about him, something ‘totally alien’. As he said, he ‘was becoming somebody he didn’t want to be’.
He was gay.
This realisation wasn’t something he wanted to share so it started to affect his life and performance as a referee, and it manifested itself in bulimia, something he still suffers with today. Owens was disgusted with himself at the time, it was the 1990s and although the stigma around what is now known as the LGBT+ community was lessening, homophobia was still rife. He acknowledges that time has moved on and now society is much more open. Perhaps if he was in the same position now, he may feel more able to talk about who he was, but living in rural west Wales, in a village with only 150 people he had no experience of gay men apart from the brash, derogatory language of children and ‘the excessively camp men on ‘80s sitcoms’. Owens became so depressed that at the age of 25, he attempted suicide. He ‘left a note’ and ‘will never forgive himself for what he put his parents through.’
On 3rd December 2005 Owens was given his last chance to become a well-established, international referee in a game against Argentina and Samoa. He knew he wasn’t performing well enough because of this huge burden he was carrying with him, so he made the choice to tell his mum. It took him three and a half hours to tell her that he was gay, ‘the challenge of refereeing the Rugby World Cup Final in 2015 was nothing compared to the challenge of acceptance’. It was this acceptance and support from his family and friends that allowed Owens to reach his full potential as a referee and he has become known for his quick quips and is the world record holder for the greatest number of Tests refereed, 97, if you’re interested!
Now, Nigel Owens is happy and proud of who he is. He has a partner and might consider having a family. He accepted himself, allowing all this to be possible. Nowadays, he ‘doesn’t worry about things he can’t control,’ for example the weather at the Barbarians vs Wales game, because as he says, ‘they can just close the roof!’ But after I asked what advice he has for young boys who are unsure about their sexuality or mental health just as he once was, he stressed how important it is to ‘surround them with an environment where they can be encouraged, and not forced, to talk,’ and above all, ‘just let anyone, no matter who they are, be themselves.’
Going to this event was a privilege for me - I learnt how important it is to not judge but to just accept, and how difficult it can be for men to share how they are feeling or their worries, but that after doing so, how it can change their lives for the better. I hope that more events like these can take place. They can make talking about such difficult issues more commonplace and help people to understand the struggles that anyone could be going through, as one in four will suffer with a mental illness at some point in their lives.
So, remember, for yourself and others:
It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to have a bad day. It’s okay to be less than perfect. It’s okay to not be okay.
It’s okay to be you.