In 30 seconds…
Despite the prevalence and global impact of mental health conditions, it’s still hard to open up and ask for help when you most need it. Many campaigns have worked to normalize the discussion around mental health. But one thing that really reaches the masses is when a celebrity speaks out about his or her struggle to spread the message that it’s okay to have a mental illness; it doesn’t make you weak.
Facing enormous pressure to appear perfect, public figures once kept their struggles with mental health private, but this tendency has changed dramatically in the 21st century.
Today, actors, musicians, political figures, and even royalty have opened up about their battles with mood disorders, personality disorders, substance abuse, and grief. Their willingness to share these details and diagnoses with the public indicate that mental illness is not as taboo of a subject as it once was. It also sends the powerful message that depression does not discriminate. No one, not even the rich and famous, are immune to this serious mental health condition.
Many of us know Tyson Fury (“The Gypsy King”) for his undefeated record in the boxing ring and two-time heavyweight world champion titles. What many of us do not know, however, is that Fury has been fighting a longer battle that goes both in and outside the boxing ring. After scrapping his way to become undefeated heavyweight champion of the world in 2015, he fell into a well-publicised battle with his mental health that almost derailed his career.
“Mental health has got to be the biggest battle I’ve ever ever fought with, more than any opponent,” – Fury has said.
Fury spent three years out of the ring due to mental health issues after beating Wladimir Klitschko in 2015 to claim the WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight titles. He battled depression, addiction and suicidal thoughts, which culminated in him nearly driving his Ferrari off a bridge at 190mph. Fury has said he “lost the will to live” and “prayed for death on a daily basis”.
Fury’s Battle with Mental Health
At 31-years-old, Tyson Fury has found his path as a mental health advocate. He uses his platform as a boxing world champion to spread awareness about mental health, to smash the stigma, and to encourage those suffering to seek help.
The truth is, people all around us are struggling with mental health disorders—but they are not always apparent. Unlike physical disability or illness, mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder do not have obviously outward symptoms. For this reason, Fury – who has struggled with depression and been diagnosed with bipolar disorder – describes mental illness as a “silent killer.” In a SHOWTIME interview, he explained,
“I was on the verge of suicide. That’s when I’d have quit. But I didn’t quit on myself and I didn’t quit on the world. That’s why I’m back here to tell the story. … Life’s hard. Nothing’s ever going to hit you as hard as life will. And anyone who suffers from mental health problems, it is a silent killer. It kills more people every year than most other things.
“… I was no different. You’re thinking heavyweight champion of the world, guy who’s on top of everything, he must be happy, right? But then I wasn’t. There wasn’t a day that I woke up that I didn’t pray for death. I had everything to be happy for, but every day was gray and dark.”
And Fury has been on the verge of suicide before, while also on the verge of greatness. In late 2015, Fury won his first world title against Wladimir Klitschko – a title he worked his whole life to achieve. Following that fight, he fell into the darkest place of his life. For 18 whole months, he had no desire to live. He found no meaning in his achievements. He did not want to wake up anymore, despite having fortune, fame, a wife and three children. In 2016, he was seconds away from crashing his car into a bridge at 190mph, before thinking about his family and pulling over before it was too late.
“With every good high, there’s gotta be a good low,” – Tyson Fury says.
With almost every great high in Fury’s life, there has been a low period that he couldn’t control. This a common sign of bipolar disorder—extreme changes in mood and behavior. During low periods of bipolar disorder, a person may experience low energy, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and the inability to enjoy things they usually like to do. These episodes last can last for weeks or months at a time.
Mental Health and Self-Medication
In his state of depression, Fury did not know how to cope. Time and time again, he tried to push his negative thoughts and feelings away. He tried to carry on with his career, with his family, and to keep his head up. After some time though, this could not keep up. He could no longer bottle things up.
So, he turned to the bottle to alleviate the pain. He started drinking heavily. Now, Tyson was not a drinker before. He had maybe 1-2 drinks a year, and never touched a drug in his life. During this 18-month period of darkness, however, that all changed.
He said in his interview with SHOWTIME Sports, “When I had a drink, it made the pain go away. Not pain as in physical pain… but pain as in the longing and the repetitive thinking, day-in and day-out, that won’t go away.” Fury continued to explain how alcohol can mask the pain temporarily, but “when you wake up the next day, you’re even more depressed than you started.” It wasn’t long before his drinking turned into drug use. He didn’t care about dying, and wasn’t afraid to try anything that might numb the pain.
This is common among those struggling with mental health disorders like depression. When you do not know how to properly cope with mental suffering, escaping it through alcohol or drugs seems to do the trick. This is called self-medication. The more drugs and alcohol are used, however, the more the body comes reliant on them. And that’s when addiction (formally called a substance use disorder) kicks in. All the while, drugs can exacerbate the symptoms of a mental illness, and make it substantially worse.
After over a year of heavy drinking, drug use and depression, Tyson Fury had a breakdown. A panic attack led him to the hospital, where he was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
During this stretch of time, Tyson Fury lost his boxing license due to failed drug tests. He owed millions of dollars in lawyer’s fees, weighed in at over 400 pounds, and was deemed “medically-unfit” to box by a world-renowned psychiatrist. At this point, many thought his fighting career was over. His prospective opponent, Deontay Wilder, even said he would never make a comeback.
And that, combined with the love of his family, is what motivated Tyson Fury to change.
Tyson Fury’s Comeback
Tyson Fury’s recovery was rooted in prayer, love, and motivation. He started setting goals for himself, one of them being to not only make the comeback Wilder said he wouldn’t, but also fight Wilder who was also undefeated at the time. He re-established an exercise routine, starting with small runs every day. He started working with a new trainer, was provided a clean bill of health, and was re-granted his license to box. He explains that the key assets to his recovery were (and continue to be):
- Exercise, which releases endorphins and which also gave him purpose
- Maintaining good nutrition, to feel better physically
- Establishing goals, and making plans to meet them
- Sticking to an everyday routine, designed to support his goals
- Prayer, which he says is like his own form of meditation
- Communication, not isolating himself, and staying open about his mental health
These, he believes, are what will keep on the path to a successful recovery.
Today—strong, stable, and sober—Tyson Fury encourages those struggling with mental health to find recovery tools that work for them. Not everyone’s struggle is the same, but one thing he does encourage is for others to be open about it. Do not bottle things up. Do not get too inside your own head. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Seek medical help if you are experiencing harmful thoughts. Do not isolate yourself. Talk about your struggles. Do not be afraid of the stigma. Too often, it is the stigma of mental health and addiction that keeps people from seeking the help that they deserve.
Tyson Fury, in his journey and fight against co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders, has helped to break the stigma. He is one of the strongest men on the planet, yet like everyone else, is vulnerable to mental health and addiction. He has said that, even as strong as he is, his mental health issues were powerful enough to bring him to his knees. And that alone goes to show that it can bring anyone to their knees. Addiction is a mental health disorder. Depression is a mental health disorder. Anyone can be affected by mental health, at any age or stage of their lives. It does not make you weak.
Dr. Benji Waterstones, a London NHS psychiatrist, told The Guardian that suicide is one of the leading causes of death in men under 45, because men have a traditional reluctance to open up. “Fury’s frankness is redefining outdated ideas of masculinity and what it means to be a ‘strong’ man. He shows you can compete to be the heavyweight champion of the world and be vocal about your mental health struggles, which is especially powerful in a testosterone-fuelled sport like boxing.”
“I woke up every day wishing I would not wake up anymore. But I am living proof anyone can come back from the brink…” – Tyson Fury
If you or your loved one is struggling with mental health problems, depressive or suicidal thoughts, or a drug abuse disorder, know that there is a light. And talking about your struggles, and reaching out for help, is the first step towards recovery. Mental health disorders too often go silenced and unnoticed. It is time to break the silence, to break the stigma, and to get the help you and your loved ones deserve.