Nick Frendo is a man on a mission. A cycling mission. And a mission to change the world, by raising awareness and reducing the stigma associated with men’s mental health and helping people to get help.
He’s using his own life story as his guide.
Last Fall, after a ride through the Dolemites in Italy, the London-based cyclist and adventure tour guide was profiled in Cycling Weekly under the headline, “Manning up didn’t help me: suicide survivor riding to raise awareness of men’s mental health.” As the Cycling Weekly article summed it up:
“Pointing the finger at “man up” culture, the two-time suicide survivor is on a campaign to encourage others to open up and be honest about their emotions.”
This March, he’ll be embarking on another challenging ride to help raise money for the men’s mental health non-profit, Movember, a 4382 km ride for the 4382 men in the UK who took their own lives.
Frendo, long a fan of The Good Men Project’s mental health content and community, kindly agreed to sit down with us and chat about his efforts, his motivation, and the impact its had both on his own life and others.
Frendo, who is now 45 years old, recalls that his love affair with cycling began when he was a boy:
“I’ve always been into riding bikes. Like a lot of people your folks buy you a bike for Christmas and you ride around the street popping wheelies and trying to impress girls. And then you discover beers, and girls properly, and you grow out of bikes. But I didn’t.”
He enjoyed riding and did some races. But as he entered his late teens/early 20s and had to step into “the real world” and “get a proper job,” he left cycling. He got a job in real estate. He got married. He started a family.
Cycling – a part of Frendo’s authentic self – was there for him to come back to. But it wasn’t until his late 20’s, after some difficult life changes, that he re-discovered his love of cycling again:
“At the same time, I had my first episode of feeling that things weren’t going my way, that life wasn’t going well, which ended up in divorce. I needed a lifestyle change and found bikes again. I left the world I was in professionally and started to work in a bike shop, earning next to no money but really starting to enjoy life again. I started riding again, racing, and guiding, and I’ve been doing that ever since.”
As for mental health and his struggles that led to his suicide attempts, pinpointing the exact single cause has been elusive:
“It’s only in the past year or two that I’ve started to reflect on what led me to where I am, what caused my troubles. I’ve still not really been able to pinpoint anything, if I’m being honest.”
Of course, there is rarely a single “cause.”
It can often be some combination of stress, life circumstances, chemistry, and not being able to make things in one’s life the way you want them. It’s complicated.
But what Frendo does now know – after a lot of work thinking and talking about these issues – is that one key to healing and to avoiding the issues that beset him earlier in his life is being open and being real about his feelings and struggles:
“Looking back, I spent probably – from my marriage falling apart to today – fifteen plus years thinking ‘Life’s a bit shit,’ and it’s supposed to be hard and everyone is struggling and just thinking this is what it is. I’ll work through it. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Now I realize that all the ‘Put your head down and deal” is in hindsight bullshit and the worst thing you can do for yourself.”
But often-times that’s how we’re socialized and that’s what we’re told to do. Frendo is trying to spread the word to help undo that. Drawing on his own journey, it took surrounding himself with a different group of people who were more open to talking about real issues than the people he had previously surrounded himself with:
“Since coming back to London and beginning to ride again, I was riding with people who were a lot younger than me, and the conversations they were having were really weird. They were talking about all sorts of issues I wasn’t used to talking about as a 45 year old. When I see my friends that I grew up with we just talk about sport, job, family, getting a bit drunk and the things we used to do as kids. And there’s lots of bravado, really stereotypical stuff. I started hanging out with this group of much younger people and I found they were much more open. That’s part of what started me wanting to do something, realizing that there are people I can talk to and be open with without being intimidated or worrying about what they were going to think about me.”
Wanting to become a mental health advocate and help others required Frendo to be very open and honest with his own friends and family. He realized that he couldn’t do anything publicly unless and until he told the people in life, “Because they’re going to ask me why I decided to raise money for Movember and to help with suicide prevention. And its not just because it was a cool thing to do.”
So in November of 2019, he started sitting down with everyone saying, ‘Look this is what I’m going to do and this is why I’m going to do it.’” He talked to his girlfriend and to his parents and to his daughter. And then he started sitting down with friends.
This was a huge and difficult change for him. These are conversations that – before having them – you cannot even imagine having, with your parents, your children, your friends, and with therapists.
But he describes the effect on his life of doing that as incredibly positive. It strengthened his relationships:
“I’ve got two kids, 15 and 9. When I told the 15 year old what I’d done, that was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. To sit down with her and say, look you’re going to find out some stuff about me and I want to talk to you first before I do anything or tell anyone just to make sure you’re comfortable with what I’m doing. And our relationship now is incredible, and its one of the most positive things that has come out of anything I’ve done. The bond that we have got is so much stronger than what we had, and I like to think that I was always a good dad. But I would have thought her perception of me was ‘Dad’s a bit intimidating’ or ‘He’s sarcastic’ or he’s this or that or the other. But I don’t think she ever would have previously felt comfortable talking to me about very much at all, whereas now we have really good conversations and she knows she can talk to me about anything. It’s an amazing thing. That’s what’s driving me on now.”
There’s such an incredible strength in doing that – its so hard – and so important. It’s inspiring to hear how it deepened his relationships, in particular with his teenage daughter:
“Looking back in what I’ve done in the past 18 months, I think I’ve achieved quite a lot and I’m really proud of that, but that is the biggest highlight, by a million miles.”
That said, taking the step of opening up to people was not easy. When you think about it, a lot of people go through difficult times and are down and depressed;there is a whole world of people not talking about it. With that in mind, just taking the step of opening up and talking about it is incredibly brave and powerful:
“It was terrifying before I did it. And I think because as I was talking to people, I was working through a lot of old feelings, and it actually caused a little bit of a relapse, because so many old memories and emotions were getting dragged back. Everything I had tried to subdue. I had a month where on the one hand I’m feeling really positive about lifting this cloud and on the other hand I’m thinking – ‘Oh yeah, I did try to do that to myself.’ So it was a massive roller coaster. Everyone was amazing. It was a really difficult month, but it was a really good one.”
The genesis of the idea to do some awareness raising activity tied to cycling happened on a trip to Italy with a friend, before Frendo had even worked up to telling anyone in his life about his suicide attempt and the aftermath. One night, talking to his friend, it all came out:
“I was working in Italy on a cycling trip with a friend and I was talking to him and we just had a night where everything came out. It went on for a few days over the weeklong trip, and it was quite intense. He’s a photographer and we decided to team up and create some content for a charity and help get the message out there to help others who have gone through it – he would shoot and I would ride – and we would do it together.”
Soon thereafter, he reached out to Movember, and the rest was history:
“I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing or how to get this thing started. So I got in touch with Movember – told them he wanted to raise money for mental health and sent an email to their info app and got an email and phone call within minutes expressing interest and asking how they could get involved and help. So we met in London office and that was that.”
Then he got focused on ‘I’m going to do this ride,” and then it just went from there.
For the ride through the Dolemites in Italy last Fall, Frendo teamed up with the Australian clothing brand MAAP and The Dolemites Tourist Board. The concept was a one day epic ride in the Dolemites. He set off at 3 AM and got home – mentally and physically exhausted – at 7 PM:
“I got back to the hotel, and I was getting messages all day from complete strangers – the support and feedback was incredible and it really seemed to resonate. It spurred me on to keep going and do more.”
Nick sometimes struggles with being a public advocate on mental health issues, but from the response he has gotten thus far, he knows he is having an impact:
“From the messages I get, I know the message is reaching people and having some kind of positive impact, whether its enabling somebody to reach out to friends and family or for professional help, that impact is the motivation that drives me on to do more.”
When you tell your own story, you impact people’s lives. It’s that simple. It makes people think: “Whether its their struggle or whether they think they know someone who is struggling. Even if it just encourages them to ask twice when checking in with a friend, rather than just saying ‘Are you OK?’ That just lets someone know that its OK to say “I’m not.” And that’s the goal.”
His take-away message is to come our from isolation and stop trying to handle the trials and tribulations of this world on your own. There is true strength – and salvation- in doing precisely the opposite:
“The main thing I’ve learned is through my mistakes. My biggest mistake was isolating myself. It’s the worst thing you can do. If someone can influence you or spark you into getting some sort of help, that’s huge. Pick up the phone. Check in with your friends. Talk to professionals. It saves lives. I realize that it was very easy for me to hide behind this character I’d created who was moody, sarcastic and a bit dark, so no one would think for a second there was a problem. It made it easy for me to hide. But doing that created so many problems for me.“
Frendo finished 2019 as the second highest fundraiser in the U.K. His next ride starts on March 1, 2020. Its a 4382 km ride for the 4382 men in the UK who took their own lives:
“I and probably thousands more could have been number 4383. Again I’m looking to highlight male suicide and to continue my efforts on behalf of others.”
Photo Credit: Nick Frendo (with permission)