Rowing With Mental Illness


The article below deals with mature and sensitive themes, namely mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and suicide. If you begin to find any of this post upsetting, please stop reading, click away and seek support if you need it. There are links to sources of online support at the bottom of the page.

In light of World Mental Health Day, we wanted to share this anonymous submission in its honest, unedited form. But we ask that everyone, particularly those under the age of 16, read on at their discretion due to the nature of the content. 


I’ve had depression for quite a while. It was first noticeable to me halfway through secondary school. I had recently taken up rowing and used it as a temporary cure. A strong training schedule kept my mind distracted from the rest of my work and home life. Time away, with friends on the water worked well as a distraction, however as the winter months came, as for all people, training became tougher and less light-hearted.

As the winter training became underway,  by 16:00 the sky was dark and the mornings were also mirroring the increasing darkness of the winter season. That’s when it set in again. I continued training, as I was unwilling to stop as my friends were part of the squad and I didn’t want to be left out by not being part of the squad, but it was getting harder to fulfil the training to my best ability.  The dark mornings made it hard for me to get out of bed, and the dark afternoons just turned me into a bad mood. In turn, me not producing my best potential was making me feel worse as I knew I could do better but I found it so much harder to push myself and I wasn’t making the top boat. It felt like I was doing the impossible considering I had only started rowing that year and the depression was making it so much harder. I started counselling after my mum started to notice signs and was getting worried. I started to feel better mentally, allowing me to be in better moods at training and at school, and I was doing better with my performance. Before I knew it, I got into the top boat and ended up winning a medal at the National School’s Regatta, which was such an amazing feeling. The high went on for quite a while - the feeling that I could do anything - until I was then in the senior squad.


Of course, being in the senior squad, it would be pretty much impossible (yes, there are probably a few anomalies) to be one of the strongest or best rowers, so it felt like I was right back to the start again. Yet, I still managed to make it to training as I didn’t want to let anyone down as I knew that was frowned upon from my first session as a senior. It was a horrible circle though, as even though I knew I was not going to be the best, my mind still attacked me, torturing me that I was the slowest and there was no point me being there. 

I’ve pretty much had to deal with that at the start of every rowing year I’ve started. I had to go to counselling to deal with it again, and when that didn’t work, I turned to self-harm. A lot of people don’t address this, as they think it should be hidden away, but it’s a serious problem that a lot of people with depression have to deal with. I genuinely thought it was somehow going to help with my mental health. I wasn’t doing it for attention, which is a big stigma around self-harm. This was difficult, however, as when training, I couldn’t wear long sleeves all the time with it being too hot occasionally, and it made it a lot harder to hide it. No one said anything in my team though, so to this day, I don’t know whether they knew or not. It got so bad again that I had to have a meeting with my coach and have a break from rowing. At this time I wasn’t sure whether it was intensity of rowing causing me to be feeling like this.After the break, however, I knew I wanted to return to the sport.


I was fixated upon turning the sport into a positive for me when I had a break, and for it to be an escape from my mind. After I returned, knowing that I didn’t want to stop rowing, it was important for me that when I entered the gym or arrived at the boathouse, I stopped the negative voices in my mind, and just focused on what I loved to do: rowing. I even managed to stop self-harming, and I felt like through changing my mindset, I was able to turn rowing back into a positive thing for me. The training got better, and my scores got better - I even got a 2k which I thought was impossible to get, made it into the top boat again and got another National School’s Medal.

It was also important to note that rowing was a positive escape for me, it did not cause me any pain, and the fact that my teammates were the best friends I could have ever asked for helped me through my depression. The bond that you make with your team is such a special one and one that should always be encouraged to keep, as there's nothing better than winning a medal with your best friends. 

From then on, I had two more years left at junior level and was determined to do as best I could within those two years. Alongside counselling, in which i was incredibly lucky to find someone who understood rowing and loved the sport, making it a lot easier for me. I was performing at my peak and was getting PB’s better than I ever thought I could get. I loved the sport so much that it was so easy for it to become an escape from everyday life. Granted, there were still some days I found it hard to get out of bed in the mornings, as do many athletes, not wanting to be outside for the day, with a fake smile on my face pretending everything was okay, and I still had the off day every now and then, but compared to how it had been, I was much better.


I then went to university. This was a whole other game in the rowing world, with the squad being of various ages and everyone training together. I couldn’t get my PB’s anymore, my scores got worse, and I felt like I was being judged by every one of the numbers on my ergo screen. I was in a programme at a significantly higher level than my school. I talked to my coach and after being assured that it takes time to be at the top of the squad, I still saw my friends doing positively, and wondered why I was so bad and couldn’t do it. I went back into the negative spiral in my mind, and one day it got so much and my depression got so bad that I ended up trying to overdose to end my life. Now I’m not saying that it was just rowing to cause me to have been like this, the change of my everyday life by moving to university was also a big impact on my health which also made my depression a lot worse.

This is something that pretty much nobody in my life knows about, as I didn’t want them to look at me differently or think of me in another light. Thus, it is so hard for people like me to talk about suicide scenarios as we don’t want to be judged. After trying to end my life, I had to go into serious counselling with private insurance which I was lucky to have, and was also prescribed antidepressants to help deal with my mental health. I felt a bit better, but I knew that the only way to stop myself from this struggle and focus on myself was to stop rowing.


No one to this day really knows the full truth behind me having to stop rowing, as I just blamed it on injury, due to me not wanting them to think of me differently, Now, this isn’t the case or solution for every rower suffering from depression, but for me, I had to take time to concentrate on myself and my wellbeing, as I had such a negative self-image. I don’t know whether I will start rowing again to this day, but I still sometimes go out in my single, and it’s nice to be rowing without any pressures to perform and to enjoy the sport again.

I know I will always be a part of the rowing world, but sadly I know is that my original aims in rowing are far gone. It is important when dealing with depression, to take to see your training in a positive light, and see the sessions as an escape or a cure, and not as a negative cause for your mental health, otherwise you can be stuck in a pessimistic spiral like I was. 


Please remember that if you are struggling with depression and rowing, or any sport, you are not alone and it is important to talk to someone. There are hotlines and groups out there trained to help people dealing with depression. There are various numbers or websites that you can call or get onto.

You can find hotline numbers or websites here: 



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