INTERNATIONAL rugby referee Nigel Owens opened up to a captive Powys audience this week about his mental health and addiction struggles, and how these were a part of his coming out story.

Speaking at a mental health conference for NPTC Group of Colleges in Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon, on Monday, June 27, Nigel opened up by saying the biggest challenge of my life was “accepting who I was”.

The 51-year-old, who holds the world record for the number of professional Test matches refereed, drew on his experiences; a running theme throughout his talk was the need for supportive communities to ensure young people’s wellbeing. He said aspects of his upbringing had been old-fashioned, which had caused him issues coming to terms with being a gay man. This drew on the idea that your surroundings, including the conversations of the people close to you, have a major impact on how confident you are in yourself.

“Refereeing the Rugby World Cup in Twickenham was huge, with millions of people watching, and questioning whether I was making the right decisions. But that was nothing compared to the challenge of accepting who I was,” said Nigel, from Carmarthenshire.

“What creates that acceptance is an environment where we feel we can be ourselves.”

Nigel battled many years without that environment and struggled with bouts of mental illness and addiction, partly provoked by the worries and secrecy around his sexuality. This included bulimia, steroid addiction and a suicide attempt aged 26.

Keeping his sexuality a secret also severely affected his passion for refereeing at one stage, meaning the career he loved was on the line. Believing he should not have to worry about that anymore, he came out as gay in 2007 in the months leading up to a career-deciding match between Argentina and Samoa.

Having been supported by his mother, then his father, and then the Welsh Rugby Union, he says he went to Buenos Aires “a different person” for the match, and rescued his livelihood in international refereeing as a result.

County Times:  Nigel Owens talks to the audience at Brecon's Theatr Brycheiniog Nigel Owens talks to the audience at Brecon's Theatr Brycheiniog

“Being backed by the union meant years-long fears of ‘what happens if they find out?’, ‘will I lose my job?’ were put to rest, and cemented rugby as the most accepting sport by hosting the positive environment I needed to feel at ease,” added Nigel.

“If it wasn’t for the sport, or more importantly the people in it, I wouldn’t be who I am.”

When asked by the audience for his best advice on managing the mental health of the people you know or work with, he replied: “Make sure people who are struggling know your door is always open for them to meet you.

“If somebody is the life and soul of the workplace, and they start getting quieter, you know there’s probably something up. But if you ask if they’re okay, they’ll always say yes.

“Don’t pester and say ‘I know something’s up’ as then the shutters come down. But let those people know you are there if they need anything, and then they’ll feel comfortable coming to you.

“[Talking openly about mental health] is still something new. The more conversations we have, the more we share, and the better we are.”

On the inspirational talk, NPTC Group of Colleges’ human resources manager Stephanie Rees said:

“It has been a huge pleasure to host Nigel at our first ever mental health conference for NPTC Group of Colleges.

“You could hear a pin drop listening to his story as it was so moving. Our team of mental health first aiders have been inspired hearing about his ups and downs, and how he overcame the latter. Taking time to hear of others’ struggles, and their positive ending, will be sure to help the first aiders undertake this important role within the college.”