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Glenn Irwin: “racing gave me the highs to pull me out of the lows”

A Honda racer speaks of his mental health battles, and why we all need to talk

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Glenn Irwin is a racer with a bunch of British Superbike wins to his name and an Isle of Man TT ride with Honda in the pipeline. But after a recent interview, he’s also become a bit of a spokesperson for mental health, which is rare (thus far) in the motorsport paddock. Over to Glenn…

It’s not something you’ll ever talk about within the paddock. When you’re there you’re only wanting to show your strength. It’s probably like anywhere, in any discipline… how often does anyone discuss it? But like we’re always told nowadays: it’s okay not to be okay. I think it’s a good thing that was trending, it will help people.

I wouldn’t say that it was a weakness, I personally just went through a tough time for a few years. It was by reaching out and getting the help that things started to improve. And maybe I was prompted to get the help because it’s now more in-your-face that it’s fine to do that. Just talking to my family and whatnot, and my boss at Honda… Harvey has been great. When I was talking about signing with Honda I explained where I’d been; I thought if we’re going to build a successful future together here we need total honesty from day one.

We had a really good conversation and it was another load off my chest or weight off my shoulders. I find the more you talk, the more it helps, and thankfully I’m happy to talk about it because I’m now out the other side. But I do respect that anyone can struggle at any time, and you can do things that might cause you to struggle.

It was probably more of a battle with myself. Where was I going? Was I really doing the right things to get me there? Probably not. I was burying things in my own head which is the worst thing you can do. If you have a broken arm everyone can see you have a broken arm. ‘Mate you need to go to the hospital, get that arm fixed.’ But mental health is a little more hidden, so people can hide it and I think it’s the worst thing you can do. I wouldn’t say I’m qualified to give any advice but if you’re struggling, don’t hide it. It certainly won’t help.

So for me it was accepting that what I was doing wasn’t doing me any good and changing my outlook. It took a lot of work to do that, but after a while you kind of feel like you’ve become a different person and you don’t have to deliberately try to be different, which is a nice feeling. If anyone’s ever struggling I do believe for sure they should speak up.

I was asked ‘who’s the fastest Irwin?’ and I said ‘on my day I believe that I am, but I’ve had a couple of years where I’ve known when I’m going to ride good or I’ve known when I’m going to ride bad’. And that’s when I was asked ‘well what’s been going on?’ which is how it came out in the press.

It probably came out in a bigger way than I expected but to be truthfully honest it was another weight off my shoulders. I got some messages after, people saying they’ve struggled for years. Reading that I’ve struggled has made them realise they could admit that they’ve struggled. It gave them the little kick up the arse to admit that they’ve struggled with mental health. If you can help one person, sure, happy days. I think all sport is doing its bit now to raise awareness.

As for talking about it amongst each other, you’ll never get two riders discussing their difficulties together because we’re trying to beat each other on track. So that’s something you won’t see. But I think as a community, bike racing is great at getting behind any charities. If anyone is struggling, and a motorbike rider is their idol, they can reach out to any of us and we’ll pass them in the right direction.

Racing was always what gave me the focus. And there was always enough focus there to be competitive. But when times were tough I’d be going racing and my head wouldn’t be in it whatsoever, and I’d be riding round – particularly in practice sessions – going along a straight and talking to myself like ‘STOP thinking about that!’ when I was doing 150mph.

Thankfully racing also gave me the highs to pull me out of the lows, but at times the best way to look at it is my potential wasn’t being fulfilled. Which was frustrating at the time. Where I am now, I look at it and go ‘well, that was just part of my journey’, and I’ve a lot more years left to fulfil my potential. And I think it’ll make a great story when I retire; that’s when we can talk even more open and honest about my career from day one to the end. I might even read it myself!

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