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Centre Court for mental health

Tuesday, 14 July 2015 Oli Jones

Oli Jones a professional tennis coach, and has bipolar. He’s part of the new face of sport that’s helping to ensure people with mental health problems can get involved.

I’m writing this on the 6.05am train from Nottingham to London, the sun is shining on the beautiful, warm June day ahead. Wimbledon is only two days away, which for me, will be preceded by the annual National Tennis Coaches’ conference at the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton. 
I’ve been in love with tennis since the age of 10: It’s my life, my career and my passion. I’ve now been the head tennis coach at Brooklands Sports Club in Sale since 2009.

I’ve also lived with bipolar for the last 12 years, but was only diagnosed three years ago during a particularly crippling bout of depression. I was at my very lowest point and came close to suicide several times. A history of mental illness runs in my family, my father took his own life when I was just 18 months old. It’s staggering that suicide is now the biggest killer of young men in the UK – bigger than cancer, heart attacks and road accidents. Just take a minute to digest that statistic.

Prior to being diagnosed, my symptoms were on occasion manageable, and sometimes they weren’t. When I was beyond the realms of ‘mental stability’ I self-medicated, which I knew was a poor idea at the time, but it seemed to be the only way that I could make the feelings disappear for a few hours – a very welcome break, but they soon returned the next day with a vengeance.

When I was in the realms of stability but still suffering from symptoms, my coping mechanism was to throw myself into exercise. I’d be at the gym or running and playing lots of tennis. Sport and exercise have always played a huge part in my life and always will – in my opinion are both integral in maintaining good mental health – ‘healthy body, healthy mind’ as the old cliché goes. 

On reflection, I over-exercised back then, and possibly burnt myself out physically. I learnt to keep a keen eye on the amount of exercise done and the energy expended. However – the positive benefits of sport and exercise far outweigh the negatives.

Since my diagnosis I’ve taken different medication. I started with a combination of an antipsychotic and an antidepressant (Quetiapine and Fluoxetine), but with a recent change of psychiatrist I’m now taking lithium. It’s early days and I’ve been taking it for almost a month, but the signs are positive. I’m a keen student of the science behind mental health and its various treatments. From the research I’ve done and the medical advice I got, it appears lithium still is the gold standard medication for treating bipolar. It has given me the longest period of mental stability over the last six years, and a very positive outlook on life and excitement for the future.

Sport and exercise have had a big role to play too. Being active kick-starts the body into releasing endorphins, our natural, mood-lifting chemicals. Endorphins restrict the body’s pain signal transmission, and they create a feeling of euphoria – commonly known to us as ‘happiness’ :-). So every time you go for a run, swim, row, walk, gym session etc, you are quite literally giving your body and brain a better chance to feel much better.

Exercise is not a cure-all for mental health problems, but it can go a long way towards helping you maintain control of symptoms – certainly depressive symptoms.

Since being diagnosed I‘ve been extremely open about my illness. Everyone at Brooklands and in the tennis industry knows – and I’ve been a fervent campaigner raising awareness of mental health, especially in sport. My goal is to help dismantle the outdated stigma surrounding mental health by using my own lived experience and if I can save ‘just’ one life by raising awareness, my job will be very much done.

I’ve received a huge amount of support from the Lawn Tennis Association – they’re the people who run the sport in the UK – and everybody connected with my club.  My openness has also prompted several people to talk to me about their own mental health issues that I was not previously aware of – powerful stuff! Being able to talk about mental health issues is just the start and often helps considerably. 

Looking to the future I’m really excited to be involved in a sport that’s starting to really understand mental health. I’m lucky that my own experiences have influenced the way that I work and I’m committed to making sure that having a mental health problem shouldn’t be a barrier to picking up a racket.   

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