INSPIRATIONS: Overcoming depression with epic exercise

A map showing Tom and Morgan's route
A map showing Tom and Morgan's route

THE passing of a family member can bring untold sadness and grief and for many, leading to an unfurling depression that can be debilitating and hard to fight.

However, two former sufferers are set to undertake a monumental challenge to show how the power of exercise can help throw off the effects of mental illness and help people lead happier lives.

Tom Walters and Morgan Calton in their Mind cycling gear PSpzY8d826GU7EWzFhZH

Tom Walters and Morgan Calton in their Mind cycling gear PSpzY8d826GU7EWzFhZH

Tom Walters, 30, from Southsea, a press and communications officer at Chichester College, and his friend Morgan Calton, 30, are due to cycle from Vietnam to Singapore in March.

The pair have both overcome depression and are seeking to prove how exercise can help those who might have a hard time admitting they need help.

Tom was diagnosed following the death of his brother Ady Walters at the age of 25 in 2006.

“For a couple of years after that, everything went on as normal,” said Tom. “Then things started to change: personality, my confidence went, I started questioning everything.

Tom Walters and Morgan Calton at a Mind fundraiser aPC-e6aPq5jl8D27Ighm

Tom Walters and Morgan Calton at a Mind fundraiser aPC-e6aPq5jl8D27Ighm

“I had questions in my head almost continuously. I didn’t know what was going on. I thought it was partly grief.”

Gradually, Tom said he recovered by opening up to people and admitting he needed help.

“About another year after that my new wife talked me into going to the doctor. They referred me to a cognitive behaviour therapist. They diagnosed it as general anxiety disorder with mild depression,” he said.

Following this, he underwent therapy to help him out, which he said was a real help, although it often left him with even more questions.

“If it wasn’t for exercise and for running in particular, I don’t know how personally I would have recovered from anxiety and depression,” he said. “If I couldn’t exercise, it would be incredibly difficult to function as a human being.”

He spoke of the ‘life-changing properties’ that he and Morgan believe strenuous exercise can bring.

“We both fundamentally believe that real endurance events can aid good mental health,” he said.

“We believe if you take that to the nth degree and make that a massive event, it can have life-changing properties.”

In a few weeks, Tom and Morgan are set to ride about 100 miles a day for 21 consecutive days in sweltering conditions through Asia, going from Hanoi to Singapore – a total distance of about 2,250 miles.

While the pair are fundraising for the mental health charity Mind, Tom said the bike ride was about much more than just raising cash.

“We both understand that these events happen all the time,” he said.

“Charity events happen every single day. What we’re doing hasn’t really been done before by two absolute amateurs,” 
he said.

“We’re not stupid, we know that this will push our bodies to the absolute limit and also mentally it will be one of the most challenging things you can ever think of.”

At the end of last year, they held a fundraiser to help get the funds together just to get themselves to Asia.

“It was fantastic as the response we got from that was absolutely brilliant,” said Tom. “It’s really grown into something really big.”

Tom and Morgan – who now lives in London – first met when they were at the University of Portsmouth.

Just before they met, Morgan’s mother passed away and later Tom’s brother Ady passed away from a brain tumour.

“Ady was the complete opposite to me,” said Tom. “He was tall and lanky, he was a scaffolder and lived for the weekend. He lived where my parents live in Derbyshire – Bolsover – and he lived for the weekend and loved his mates.

“He wasn’t very academic and was the complete opposite to me. I went to university and at that time when brothers really become friends and get to know each other, he died. He was three years older than me.”

Tom was told the news of his brother’s condition when he was in Portsmouth.

“I found out in a phone call from my dad that kind of still haunts me really – he was ill and wasn’t going to get better. He passed away about two months after I handed in my dissertation. When I graduated, he was in a coma.”

In the past Tom has done fundraising events for Cancer Research, but said this time it was about after-effects and how grief could affect people.

Their experiences drew Tom and Morgan together, but they both suffered as a result of the bereavements.

“We developed our own problems closely associated to grief,” said Tom. “It turned into depression and major anxiety issues.”

Suffering and overcoming the illnesses have helped the pair become incredibly close friends.

“We decided a couple of years ago that we wanted to do something really big for mental health awareness,” said Tom.

“We’ve been offered fantastic support from Mind and Time To Change. We wanted to do something to give back to those charities.”

This is why the bike ride is so important to the pair, as they try to tell people they are not alone in experiencing mental illness – a problem that is all too frequent.

“Suicide is now the biggest killer for men aged between 20 and 45,” said Tom.

“We fundamentally believe that really strenuous exercise can give the mind the lift it needs through released endorphins, but also if you push it enough and if you give it the chance it can have life-altering properties.

“I’m not a scientist, I don’t know the science behind it, but it’s something we believe.”

As time has passed, it has become easier to talk about and accept the issues that accompanied depression and anxiety.

“Over the years it’s got much better and now I’m able to talk about it and want to do something about it to help out people,” said Tom.

He said the whole experience could be very debilitating and he wanted to help, adding it was unacceptable for anyone in this country to be in the position where the only way out for them was to commit suicide.

“That should never be an issue, especially in 2015,” he said.

“This ride is absolutely crazy and yes, it’s about raising awareness and it’s about recognising that not everyone is in such a fortuitous and advantageous position where they can go and get help. There are a lot of people, especially among men, who are too proud to admit that there might be an issue.

“Long-term, we’re extremely passionate about mental health awareness. We would love to be in a position where we could get other people, other young men possibly, who are suffering from mental health issues, to do similar challenges and go completely out of their comfort zones to do something.”

To add extra pressure for the ride, their return tickets back are already booked for April 17 – meaning they need to reach Singapore in time.

“If we get ill or something happens, we have to do more the next day,” said Tom.

An extreme amount of training is also going into the enterprise.

“I hadn’t ridden a bicycle since I was 12,” said Tom, who had to buy a bike and start training once he and Morgan dreamed up the challenge.

Morgan has trained at an athletes’ lab in London, which has been able to simulate the 33-35°C they will experience – with humidity between 70 and 90 per cent.

They fly out on March 24 and leave Hanoi on March 26.

During the three weeks, they will travel through North Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

As well as enduring the challenge, they also need to become bike mechanics to maintain the bikes and be able to take them apart at the airports.

“We want people to get on board with it,” said Tom. “While we’re out there we’re cycling hundreds of miles and there’s going to be bits and pieces where it’s extremely under-developed.

“We believe if you’ve got that plan and you’ve got that ambition and you can instill that ambition in people to do something, it can be a real aid.”

Find out more about the ride and donate by visiting here.

Also, to find out more about Mind Over Matter, follow @MoM_UK on Twitter.