Q&A: Mental health and running with Tom Dunning

Tom Dunning, aka the Mental Health Runner, joins us in our latest Q&A to share his story, from battling mental health to finding a love for running. We cover how his love for running began, the link between mental health and exercise, mental health stigmas, writing a book ‘Surviving The War Against Yourself‘, and the lessons he has learned from his experiences. Check it out below.

The interview

Hi Tom, thanks for joining us! Please introduce yourself.

Hello there! My name is Thomas Dunning and online I use the alias “Mental Health Runner”, operating the website and blog, www.mentalhealthrunner.co.uk, and the Instagram, www.instagram.com/mental_health_runner. While in my fulltime work as a mechanical process technician, outside of the workplace I am a sought after international keynote speaker who has also performed his own TED talk and hosted the [email protected] event last year!

I’m diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder and Borderline personality disorder, and also a survivor of countless suicide attempts when, at its worst, I was in A&E twice in one night all too regularly. With this, I use my stories of mental ill-health and my journey to help promote a mental health message to destigmatise conversations to prevent anyone from going down the same route I did.

I’m a run Leader for Run Talk Run Lincoln and also a member of the Brooks Run Happy Team UK. During the lockdown, I ran a marathon in my yard and also did the three peaks challenge on my staircase to help motivate people to keep active at home. I’m also an active member on the board of Governors in the Lincolnshire NHS and I’m also an author, with my wife Amber, of “Surviving the war against yourself”, which is available in all good book stores!

I’m a confident and proud runner who doesn’t really care for times. I just enjoy it and I’m in my own little happy place. Next year I am running and wild camping the entirety of the Pennine way, following in my father’s footsteps after he completed it in 1984. I will finish on my 30th birthday and will hopefully be shooting the documentary at the same time to show the world that no matter what, mental health WILL NEVER be a label or a hindrance to yourself. If anything, my conditions have helped fuel my passion for helping others and we hope to gain some corporate sponsors to help support the documentary! But more information on that is available on my website.

When did your love for running begin? And why?

My love for running very much happened by accident. After I had started my recovery from my various attempts at taking my own life and living in what can only be described as my own personal hell, I wanted to lose weight. I was 23 and a half stone at the time and thought I would just give it ago; Little did I know that in 7 months time I would lose 7 and a half stone and my mental health would drastically improve!

I’d fully fell in love with it by the time I entered my first 10km race which was the Rochdale 10km and half marathon.

Mental health and exercise go hand in hand, but how important do you think one is to the other?

I honestly believe that they’re both so intrinsically linked that you can’t really have one without the other. When I think ‘exercise’, I’m not picturing a lung-busting sub 35 minute 10km, but rather going out for a walk, jog, cycle or whatever physical movement you enjoy – It doesn’t have to be for hours on end or a huge amount of miles, but any stretch of time and distance with some movement involved helps massively!

The other side of this, of course, is when your struggling with your mental health sometimes you really don’t want to do that, and I totally get it; It still happens to me. But I know from experience that if I go and do it, I’m not reinforcing those negative behaviours towards exercise, but reinforcing good ones to get out and get active. This makes it far easier in the future!

What role has running played in your own mental health journey?

It’s now actually part of my wellbeing regime! When I’m having a particularly bad day, for instance, I get myself outside, even if it’s just for one mile. It’s a great stress reliever and when I’m running with my headphones and sunglasses on, I just let the emotion come out. A few times I’ve had a good cry while running and it feels great afterwards. It’s my little bubble and safety blanket.

When it comes to breaking down the mental health stigma, how far do you think we have come and how would you assess the current levels of mental health awareness in the UK?

From when I had my first breakdown in 2014, the UK has come on leaps and bounds in regards to mental health awareness and de-stigmatising it. More and more people feel like they can talk and that’s one of the key messages for Mental Health Runner – It’s okay to not be okay and that if you need to talk, people will listen. It’s a hard lesson I have had to teach myself but I learned it as I started to recover.

Tell us about your book ‘Surviving The War Against Yourself’.

Surviving The War Against Yourself is the true account of my life story, from my childhood, being bullied and assaulted almost every day when I left the house even to go to school, all the way through my breakdowns and the lowest part of my life, to the present day. It’s very gritty in places and it does mention my attempted suicides, what drove me to it and what it’s like living as someone who has PTSD, Social Anxiety Disorder and Borderline personality disorder.

It’s unique in the fact that it’s not just my story, it’s my wife Ambers too! When in the story I finally meet Amber, she has chapters which occur after mine. It’s basically two autobiographies in one – One story, two narratives. I wanted to write a book to help anyone who may not follow my work on Instagram, my blog and Facebook, but couldn’t do it on my own. It’s not just my story you see. Amber was there throughout and I could only ever do the journey justice if we had her accounts also.

The idea is that anyone can pick the book up and see a truly detailed account of my mental illness and the battle, but also see the carer’s side too so the reader can say to themselves, “I’m identifying like Tom, maybe I should get some help before it gets worse?” OR “I’m identifying like Amber, maybe I need to get my partner/friend/family member some help before it gets too late”.

Alastair Campbell has a copy and has said “It’s as much a love story as it is about mental health” and we have also had letters from Kensington Palace that Royals Will and Kate also have a copy!

You are involved with Run Talk Run Lincoln and the Brooks Run Happy Team. How important is it to join these communities? 

To bring Run Talk Run to Lincoln really feels amazing! It combines the aspect of getting active in a 5km run, jog or walk with providing a safe space where people can discuss what is troubling them and have an outlet if they feel comfortable to do so. But we do stress that it’s absolutely fine if we have to walk, if you don’t want to talk about your mental health – it is a completely safe environment from any judgement. Both of those aspects played a key part in my recovery so to provide this to someone else for me really means a lot. We’ve had some amazing feedback, have a great community and I really do hope any of your readers reading this feel like they can reach out to their local group!

To be part of the Brooks Run Happy Team UK though in its self is life-changing and is like a dream come true. I always run with the motto, “forget the time, forget the distance: Just. Do. You.” And I really do believe that running changes and transforms people’s lives in every aspect. To be recognised and selected to be part of their team is incredible because I can help spread that message further and represent a brand that believes in the exact same morals as I do. I know for a fact I’m not going to beat the greats such as Sir Mo Farah or Dame Kelly Holmes. The only person I want to beat is myself and the fact that running even just for a few minutes provides me with that, I always win! I’m so proud to be in the position to represent the company in the UK and help motivate and inspire others to get active and take up running.

I want everyone to see that you really can Run Happy and that both of these two huge moments in my life help me to show the world just that!

From battling suicide to finding a love for exercise, your story is a truly inspiring one. But what inspires and motivates you when the going gets tough?

Sometimes when I have my really bad days and I just don’t want to get out of bed, there are only ever really two things which do – Amber and my followers. Amber has been put through hell and I made her encounter situations which I’m not proud of (it’s in the book) but the fact she is still by my side and always supports me in anything I do, I owe it to her at least to put my action plan into place and do what I need to do in order to improve my mood.

Also, to my followers, I really want to be able to provide a source of inspiration and motivation for those wanting to get active; Whether they are entering, going through or coming out of a bout with mental ill-health, running really does help. Seeing all those people I’ve spoken to get active alone is amazing, but for people who send me emails, messages, approach me at events, join us at our Run Talk run Lincoln nights and even say hi to me in the street, it really helps me for when my mood inevitably dips. I can look back and use that as a fuel.

What would you say to anyone reading this who wants to get into running but doesn’t know where to start?

In regards to motivation, as soon as you put that first foot forward, you are a runner – Time and distance don’t matter, YOU ARE A RUNNER. It’s so easy to look at other people’s Instagram accounts, for example, and inspire to be or achieve that, but don’t let the evil of imposter syndrome take over! So what that person can do 35 minute 10km? It’s impressive, don’t get me wrong, but if you do a 10km in an hour or more, for example, you’ve still done a 10km! And that applies to any distance.

In regards to kit; If you are going for a new pair of trainers, for example, get a gait analysis first so you have an idea on what type of running style you have – It’s usually free and it will help prevent any exercise-related injuries (some places do offer a discount if you have a gait analysis first!)

In regards to fitness; First of all, try not to enter the trap of not enjoying it. Although it’s good to understand when and how to push your body to its limits for greater distance and faster times, make sure you keep the activity fun! At least half of my runs I don’t time because running is my happy place.

The first step is always the biggest, smallest step you will ever take into running (or anything else in that matter). Sometimes you may never even realise how big of a step it was until you look back on it. We all as runners and individuals started from somewhere and we know what it was like to take that first step. We are all on your side as friends, as a community, and a family!

Do you have any standout running experiences?

That’s a really hard question to answer! Every race I’ve been in has had its ups and downs, for better and for worse, but I would have to say there are two which stand out the most. Completing the Rochdale 10km after only starting to run about 2 weeks before, and that medal will always live with me and be a foundation marker of where my journey as both myself and Mental Health Runner began, but also that of the London Marathon.

About halfway when you run across Tower Bridge, the TV helicopters flying around, the pavements packed with spectators and just this wall of noise coming at you, it is something which I’ve never felt before. It was like I was an actual Olympian for the day! Everyone wanted you to succeed and the community expanded to much more than the people on the track itself. For me, it was a blink and you’ll miss it moment but yet when I was running across the landmark, I really felt like I was in slow motion. But of course, the London Marathon for me marks how far I had come in my own life. From attempting to take my own life, quite often ending in A&E twice in one night, to now completing one of the world’s biggest marathons… It always brings a smile to my face and makes me feel proud.

Lastly, what is your top lesson learned to share with anyone who can relate to your story? 

My top lesson learned; Well, to be honest, there isn’t just one, there’s two. Two simple mantras I now live my life by and please feel free to steal these!:

  1. If there is 1 in 4 people suffering from a mental illness, there is always 3 others who can help save a life.
  2. If you go through one second, hour, day, week or whatever time scale, with a case of mental ill-health – You are no longer a sufferer, But you’re a sur-thrivor – You have survived, and you thrived.

It really will get better even if it doesn’t feel like it. I’m just a simple man who has a story of when my life was pretty bad but how I’ve recovered and how I continue to be a sur-thrivor. If I can do it, so can you #Whateverittakes.

Hopefully everyone found that as inspiring as we did. A massive thank you, Tom, for sharing your story. Follow Tom’s journey on Insta and check out his blog here.