Artwork for podcast My Family, Mental Illness, and Me
Joe Wicks
3rd November 2021 • My Family, Mental Illness, and Me • Bespoken Media
00:00:00 00:45:38

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Joe Wicks AKA The Body Coach grew up with a heroin-addicted dad and a mum with obsessive compulsive disorder. He tells Pamela that, despite "chaos and destructive behaviours", it was always a loving home.

If you would like to support children and young people living with parental mental illness, please donate to Our Time here: https://www.justgiving.com/ourtimeuk. To find out more about Our Time, please visit www.ourtime.org.uk/.


If you are affected by anything you hear in this podcast, there are people you can talk to for support. You can contact your GP, www.samaritans.org or www.childline.org.uk. If you are a young person, you could also talk to a teacher or other trusted adult.

Transcripts

Dr Pamela Jenkins: This is My Family, Mental Illness... and Me.

[Intro music]

My name is Pamela Jenkins and I’m a researcher at the Mental Health Foundation. My mum, Irene, lived with a mental illness. There were voices only she could hear and she could quickly switch from feeling very high to very low. No one ever talked about it with me when I was young, even though I knew my mum was often unwell. When I was in my 20s, that’s when a psychiatrist told me that my mum had schizoaffective disorder. Sadly, I lost her quite recently to Covid-19 but even though she’s gone, her mental health will always be a huge part of my life.

In each of these podcasts, I’ll speak to someone else whose parent has or had a mental illness. In the UK, there are at least three million children of parents with mental illness. If you’re one, it’s really important that you know you’re not alone.

My Family, Mental Illness... and Me is a podcast series from the charity Our Time with support from the Mental Health Foundation. Our Time champions and supports children of parents with mental illness and their families. We’ve put links to more information in the show notes.

This time, I’m sharing stories with a household name who kept so many of us going, both physically and mentally, through the coronavirus lockdown.

Joe Wicks: Hi, everyone. I’m Joe Wicks, also known as ‘The Body Coach.’ I’m a trainer from the UK and someone who is really passionate about health, fitness and mental health.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Hi, Joe Wicks. Thank you so much for being here to talk to me today. I am here to hear all about your experience of being a child of a parent with mental illness. I’m just going to open up the floor up to you really and just tell me about your folks.

Joe Wicks: Well, it’s lovely to be a guest on your podcast. Thank you so much for inviting me on and I’m really passionate about sharing my story and hopefully, helping other people out there that may be going through difficult times. I think, as an adult now, I really understand my childhood and my parents a lot more but at the time, I didn’t really know they had mental health issues. I just thought that my mum loved cleaning. She’d clean the house three or four times a day and was really obsessive. She had a lot of eating disorders. She struggled with her body weight and she was always really tiny and I remember that. I didn’t really think much of it. I didn’t really understand. Conversely, with my father, he self-medicated with drugs. He was a heroin addict from a very young age and so I’ve had that experience of being around chaos and destructive behaviours but didn’t know, at the time, that my parents really had mental health issues.

But I’ve been on a bit of a journey the last few months and I’ve been filming this documentary where I’m going back into my past to speak to my parents and friends of mine that were at school to find out what I was like as a kid. How did that chaos at home and that kind of manic household affect me as a child and as a teenager? It was quite emotional. I found it was like therapy for me because a lot of things I didn’t remember or I chose not to remember. Yeah, I found it quite emotional but one thing I’ll say about my parents is that they always loved us. They always gave us so much love and support and even though they would argue and there was a bit of madness, my mum and dad would say, ‘Look, we’re sorry we’re arguing but we still really love you.’ I think that’s the one thing that kept me on the straight and narrow and kept me in a positive position because I didn’t go down that route of having eating disorders or drug addictions. That’s what I’m realising. The more I see and meet people, as long as there’s one person around you that’s supporting you or giving you love and letting you feel safe, as a child, I think you can get through anything.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, that’s absolutely true and it’s interesting you say that you don’t remember and that they didn’t speak to you about it. So you were never told anything at all?

Joe Wicks: Well, it’s one of those things. I knew my dad wasn’t well because he would be in and out of rehab and I didn’t really understand, as a young child, what was going on but when I got to the teenage years, I started to realise and think, ‘Oh, my dad’s got a drug addiction and he’s going off to rehab because he’s relapsed.’ It was so upsetting because things would be really good, they’d be getting on really well and I’d think, ‘Oh, my dad is back now,’ and then suddenly, they’d start to argue and I realised he was relapsing and using again. His whole attitude and energy would change because heroin is a really sedative kind of drug and so he would just be asleep all the time. I couldn’t really interact with him like I wanted to and that was upsetting. I went through phases of being upset and then angry. As a teenager, I really, really found it difficult to understand. With my mum, we argued a lot because she wanted to clean the house every day all the time and wanted me to hoover my bedroom three times a day. I thought it was just normal and I just thought this was what mums were like but it was a massive friction point between me and her because obviously, as a kid, I just wanted to go out and play or make a mess and have friends come round. There were certain boundaries and my house was like an IKEA showroom. It was immaculate. I now understand why my mum was like that because she dealt with a lot of childhood trauma and that was her way of dealing with her feelings and her emotions.

I suppose I wish I knew more back then because if I did know, I would have treated my mum differently. I would have had more understanding and I would have had more empathy for her but I think when you are a child, your parents will do anything they can to protect you from it by not admitting they’ve got an issue or not really acknowledging it and not wanting to upset you and make you think about things that are grown-up feelings or big feelings. They think, ‘Oh, he’s not going to understand.’ But things would happen like our house would get raided or there would be holes in the door when they’d have a big argument and I’d have to get up in the morning, go to school and just be like a normal school kid and not say anything. It was weird and even back then, I think if only we had a bit more communication, we understood each other and talked more, it would have put me in much better stead and I wouldn’t have acted up so much at school.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Did you talk to anybody at school about it all like your friends or teachers?

Joe Wicks: Well, looking back, I only actually had one friend that I remember speaking to about it because he had a similar childhood. He was raised by a single-parent mum and his dad also had a drug addiction. He actually came on my show and I interviewed him and it was a really emotional conversation because he didn’t know really what was going on with my life and he was telling me stuff that I just didn’t know. I thought he was a happy little kid but he had a violent and abusive parent at home who was really upsetting him and frightening and stuff. I think we told each other certain things but not everything. He knew my dad had a drug addiction and I knew his dad was a drug addict, so we kind of had something in common but we didn’t really go into much detail about it. We just had this mutual understanding that we knew that there was something going on at home that was a bit upsetting. It wasn’t like everyone around me knew but we’re really good friends even now, so I think we’ve always been bonded by that sort of understanding and that little moment that we connected and told each other. We were on a ski trip actually and I was like, ‘Oh, my dad is not around at the moment. He’s gone into rehab,’ and then sort of opened up. It was nice to have one friend that I could talk to about it.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, and there are so many children, as you know, having worked with Our Time yourself, that are in this situation and what would be nice is if there was movement forward with this, more public engagement and kids would feel more comfortable talking to each other because that shared connection will exist all over the place. It’s such an important thing to do to talk about it. What about with the rest of your family? I understand you have siblings. Is that right?

Joe Wicks: Yeah, I’ve got a little brother, George, who’s ten years younger than me and I have an older brother who is a year and a half older than me. So my mum had my brother when she was 17 and she had me when she was 19 and so she was so young. She left school at 15 and she got kicked out of home and then she was living in a squat. She had a bit of a rough start really and so when she was raising us, she was just learning on the job. She didn’t know what was right and wrong. She just did the best she could and I always look back and I don’t really have much resentment around my childhood because I think my mum loved me and my dad loved me. They just had their own little demons that were going on but they still kept us safe. They still got us to school and kept us clean. We were clean and fed and we weren’t neglected in that sense because you might think that’s what would happen with a drug addict. I think if both my parents were heroin addicts, things would have been different but my mum wasn’t into drugs and, therefore, I think she kept the structure, the routine and the boundaries that we had in our lives. We didn’t really talk about it. I think now we’ve got much more communication and I understand my mum and dad now and their past. We’ve had dialogue where I say, ‘If you’re struggling, let’s talk. Don’t shut off and go and self-medicate with drink, alcohol and drugs because it’s just going to take you down a darker route.’

But I love the work of Our Time. What I loved about it was I went to one of the KidsTime sessions and I saw how the children are brought into the conversation. They were having really young children speaking about depression, anxiety, bipolar and the change in mood and the cloud above our heads. This kind of conversation is really important because the child doesn’t feel like they’re responsible or it’s their fault. They almost act out certain situations and it’s like therapy sessions but the parents go into one room, kids go in a separate room and then they come together at the end and do like a little open topic of conversation. I found it really uplifting and I thought the parents that were there were really strong and brave parents who have come forward and said, ‘I need help. I’m struggling.’ I think a lot of parents keep talking about that word ‘stigma’ and say, ‘I’m frightened to tell someone I’ve got mental health issues because I love my little children and I don’t want them taken away from me.’ I was thinking about what an amazing act of courage and strength it is to actually come forward and say, ‘I’m really struggling. I need some help.’ I left that place feeling really uplifted. I was sad though because I thought, ‘This is one charity that’s doing it in the whole of the UK. There needs to be more of this.’ It was only touching a certain amount of families but everyone should have access to that care because there are millions of families with parental mental health, isn’t there?

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Absolutely.

Joe Wicks: This kind of work is so powerful and so important that it really should be in every single borough in the country.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Absolutely. Service provision and recognition in mental health policies. I completely agree with you one hundred per cent. I’m trying to push forward an agenda of more work in this area within my work as well because it’s so, so important. You mentioned stigma a minute ago. Did you ever feel any stigma do you think when you were younger?

Joe Wicks: I remember thinking, ‘I just can’t talk about this because this is drugs. This is wrong. I can’t go into school and tell my teacher.’ I thought it would get them in trouble or everyone would be ashamed of me or they wouldn’t want to talk to me if they really knew what my life was like at home. I was a happy, popular kid at school but what was going on at home was quite traumatic. It was destructive. There were doors getting slammed and it was just chaos. It wasn’t a safe environment as a young kid. I had to come into school and just act like nothing was wrong and I think that was because I was worried and concerned that my parents would get in trouble or I’d be taken away from my mum and dad. You just hide it and you just sort of put on a brave face. I think children are very resilient. They can tolerate a lot more than you think. It was just my life at the time but when I look at my little babies now, Indie and Marley, I think if they were in that situation, I’d be so upset and so sad for them but when I was in it, I was just a boy trying to get through school and deal with all the other emotions of growing up and being a teenager. My teenage years were the hardest because I remember I was just fed up with it. I was fed up with the relapsing and the lying because with drug addiction, it’s such a sneaky... they just don’t admit they’re ever doing it until they get caught in the act. Literally, they’ve got to be holding paraphernalia before they say, ‘Oh, I’ve had a relapse.’ I remember feeling like my dad wasn’t being honest and I was really distrustful. I found that really difficult because I just wanted that person to be open with me and be honest.

So I’ve learnt, as time has gone on, that rather than be angry at my dad and push him away and say, ‘I hate you. You’re a drug addict. I can’t be around you,’ what I’ve realised is – and I heard this wonderful quote – that the antidote to addiction is connection. So I ring him and I tell him I love him. I say, ‘How are you doing?’ I pull him towards me because that’s what he wants and needs. He doesn’t need me to say, ‘You’re just a junkie. I can’t speak to you anymore.’ But that took me a long time because when you’re young, you don’t have that emotional maturity and I just couldn’t deal with my feelings. I think for me, looking back, exercise was like a therapy for me. I was always exercising. I was running to school. I was doing different sports. I was always pushing my body. I joined the gym at 16. Every day, I was down the gym because I felt like when I did exercise and moved my body, I let out the stress, anxiety, and this fear that I had. I definitely wasn’t a child that experienced depression but I was definitely anxious. What was I going home to after school? So for me, going to the gym for a couple of hours prepared me to go home and be a little bit more relaxed and calmer about things.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: That’s interesting. I was going to ask you do you feel it had any impact on your mental health as a child? Do you think without the exercise it would have done?

Joe Wicks: I’ve really unravelled this and I’ve looked into it now and I realise that I wasn’t exercising to change the way I looked. I mean I was skinny and I didn’t like my body as a teenager but it was really about my mental health. It was all about my mind. It was about wanting to feel safe, and wanting to feel strong, and wanting to know that however I felt in the morning, if I did some exercise or ran around at school, I just felt better. I don’t know why. I just remember thinking, ‘I feel a bit happier now. I feel calmer.’ So I’ve had that in my DNA from such a young age and I’ve just carried it on as an adult. For me, I love exercise because it changes my mindset. I can be really down and stressed but I go for a quick walk, or I do a treadmill hit, or I do some weights and I feel like the stress, and the anger and the feelings just dissipate and I’m a new person. That’s the message I always try and promote to people that are suffering with their mental health. No matter how severe it is, just get your body moving because when you move your body, you can physiologically change what’s going on in your brain. It’s temporary but you can lift your energy and you can lift your mood for a very short amount of time. That’s really the motivation. So I always say the action creates motivation. Don’t wait to be super motivated and wake up feeling like you’re going to take on the world because most days, you’re not going to feel that but if you do a little something, you’re going to build up your energy, your motivation is going to come and that’s what is going to draw you back.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: That’s such a mature thing to recognise I think for a young child or a teenager. I think that’s so mature. Gosh, we could have done with you in the 80s, although you’re an 80s baby as well. I went the opposite sort of a way. I wasn’t active at all and sort of found comfort in losing myself in another world, so I’d watch a lot of movies or a lot of television. There was my mum’s mental illness and I lost my dad and the timing of that happened at an age that was, developmentally, quite important where I was maybe going to start going down that sports route or finding my interests and exploring what it was I was interested in but the way things happened, I sort of retreated and it was comforting to just be in my little bubble and not explore these things. That’s always something I look back on and regret. So it’s so fantastic to hear what you’re saying and I think so important for children of parents with mental illness growing up now to know. There was nobody sending that message at the time. There has not been anybody sending that message until recently. I think it’s so important and it’s just so refreshing to hear.

Joe Wicks: Did you find it hard to get into exercise as a teenager and as an adult? Have you found it harder to get into it, love it, and feel the connection with it?

Dr Pamela Jenkins: One hundred per cent. There’s absolutely no question. It’s something that has stuck with me and it also plays on my mind. It’s a very weird thing to explain, although maybe you come across people like this all the time, where I know it will make me feel good but it’s getting over that barrier. Do you what the ridiculous thing is? My PhD was actually about physical activity. I did a project with bowel cancer survivors and if they take part in more physical activity, they’re more likely to survive longer and have fewer adverse health outcomes. So I did this whole physical activity consultation intervention with them and motivated them to do more physical activity and I’m sitting here a complete hypocrite because I know I don’t do what I should be doing. I think that that barrier goes way back to when I was a child. I think it’s all wrapped up with the stuff with my mum.

Joe Wicks: It’s so difficult though. The biggest challenge that people face is the motivation to be consistent as well and I always say that when you shift your mindset from it being about exercising to look good, to lose your love handles, to lose your bingo wings, to change how you look and weigh, and all these physical body image things... to shift that to it being about your mental health and how you’re going to feel – your energy, your mood, your sleep and how you interact with your partners and children – you become more patient and more understanding. Exercise is so linked to how we feel and I think that’s what you need to tap into. Like you said, a lot of teenagers turn the opposite way and they go to gaming, they go to food, they go to alcohol, drink and cigarettes. There are so many different things we can distract ourselves with. We’re always, as humans, trying to distract ourselves to take away negative feelings or certain things we’re thinking about and I think sometimes you’ve got to tackle it head on and I think the best way, for me, is with exercise and meditation. I’ve recently started to realise the power of actually slowing down because I’m normally 100 miles an hour and doing burpees and sprinting. Everything is really high energy and physical but actually, you can really get to a lovely place by slowing down as well, like going for a walk or meditating for ten minutes a day. These things are tools that we can all use any day of the week.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, absolutely. My husband actually meditates and he’s very active. I should really try and tap into that a lot more. Even just on Saturday – I’ve got two little boys – we walked right to the top of a local hill here. They were miles ahead of me. It was quite embarrassing. The youngest is five and he was practically running up. I felt so good afterwards and so tapping into something as well that you enjoy and that can even give you the headspace... walking up a hill gives you a lot of headspace as well, doesn’t it?

Joe Wicks: Yeah, one thing I’ve come to realise really recently during the lockdown as well is that exercise isn’t just about weights and doing high-intensity stuff that makes you sweat, gets you out of breath and is physically exhausting. I think being mindful as well and going for walks, gardening or going to play hide and seek in the garden with the kids... all these things are movement and it’s play. It’s really important not to feel like you have to do a certain type of exercise. Find what you love and do it daily; little bits of 20 minutes and 30 minutes here and there. It’s going to really change the way you feel. I think a lot of people put pressure on themselves to join a gym or do The Body Coach HIIT Workouts every day and sometimes, you’re just not in the mood for it and your body just wants to do something a little bit less impactful and a bit more chilled. So I think really all movement is good for us.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, it’s true. So with all this, how big a part do you think your experience as a child has played in you getting to this point where you are now?

s just standard. In the early:

I don’t have any regrets. I’m not someone who sits around and I don’t think I need to sit through loads of therapy and ask, ‘Why did my mum do this? Why did my dad treat me like that? Where was he when I was eight years old?’ I just think, ‘Look, it is what it is.’ I have a really great relationship with him now and I think it is important to rebuild and work on your relationships. I love my parents and I love what they taught me. I love that I had a struggle because now I’m so proud of what I’ve achieved. I got an MBE [laughter].

Dr Pamela Jenkins: That’s amazing!

Joe Wicks: Who comes out of a council estate in Epsom...? I was a bit of a naughty kid... and I’m super proud of that MBE. Yeah, I think it really helps shape the way we are. I think you’ve just got to be a strong character. I think, instinctively, you’ve got to have quite strong decision-making because otherwise, pressures come in and you start to think, ‘Oh, I’m going to try that.’ But my mum always used to say to me, ‘Joe, you’ve got a choice. You don’t have to take drugs because your friends do. You don’t have to drink. You don’t have to be out till two or three in the morning. You can come home.’ So I always knew that I could make the right decisions and that really helped me be the person I have become today I think.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: I bet your folks are really proud of you as well. It’s just wonderful. It really is.

Joe Wicks: My mum tells me every day, and I’m not just saying this... every single day of my life, she texts me saying she’s proud of me. She says, ‘Love you. Proud of you. So proud of the dad you’ve become.’ I didn’t have a positive role model dad but somewhere along the lines, I’ve learned to be a good dad. I love my kids and I’m always learning and always trying to do my best. It’s the same with Rosie. I’m really committed, loyal, and faithful to Rosie and I didn’t see that as a kid. My mum does like saying to me, ‘I’m really proud of the man you’ve become,’ and I always say, ‘Mum, you raised me. You get the credit. You were an amazing mum and for all the manic chaos we went through, you were a wonderful mum and you did an amazing job because whatever you did worked. Look who I am today.’ Me and my brothers are all really hard-working and we really respect our partners. You’ve got to love your mum and dad, haven’t you really?

Dr Pamela Jenkins: That’s true. It’s true. It’s interesting you used the chaos. This word chaos comes up quite a lot. I think that’s a good descriptor for children in these situations. Just with regards to the exercise, do you think that it was almost a coping mechanism when you were younger and if so, does it remain one now?

Joe Wicks: One hundred per cent. Exercise has always been my therapy. It’s the one constant in my life. Even when I was travelling and backpacking, I remember people would just be in bed all day and I’d be getting up and running to the beach or going surfing and always just moving. I had this energy inside that I had to release and a lot of it was probably anxious, nervous aggression and tension as a young kid but as an adult now, I can really pick up on how I’m feeling. If I’m eating junk food, staying up late, drinking gin and tonics and not exercising, I’m not that great to be around. I get grumpy. Food affects my mood. I’m not motivated and I don’t want to be doing work. I just want to procrastinate. All these things affect me and so I’ve realised that when I wake up in the morning and do something, I interact with everyone around me better. I treat my family better and I’m more patient with the kids. People forget that and they think exercise just affects you and your brain but truly, when I exercise, it has this wonderful waterfall effect on the people around me because I’m in a good mood and, therefore, I treat Rosie, Indie and Marley with much more patience and time. I want to be around them. I think people forget that. These are the things you’ve got to remember. When you are someone who struggles with motivation, remind yourself how much better you are when you do a bit of exercise and when you go out with the kids for a bike ride or you get some fresh air. When I see little kids in schools or with my YouTube workouts exercising and I see their faces light up, that for me is the ultimate goal. I’m now putting all my time and energy into getting children into exercise to see the connection and understand that this is a tool we can use, not just to change the way we look but to really feel good and to really live a healthy life. As a coping mechanism for anything that’s going on in your life, exercise is the first thing you should turn to.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: It’s true and health behaviour is really established quite young. When people become adults, you’re working harder to then change those behaviours because they’re more ingrained. If you tap into people when they’re children and encourage them from then, exercise has such a positive knock-on effect on other health behaviours as well. You were saying eating and drinking. When you stop doing those things and you add the exercise in, I can completely relate to what you’re saying and it’s so great to see how you can get that motivation to remain in that positive space. It’s the staying in that space that can be tricky, isn’t it, in my experience? [Laughter]

Joe Wicks: I have days when I’m really unmotivated and I just want to eat junk food and sit around. I get stressed and I just want to eat junk food and I do it. I mean do that once every couple of weeks but I really remind myself... I don’t have any guilt or shame around it. I love food and I’ll eat anything but I feel so lethargic, I feel bloated and I feel tired. For me, they come hand in hand. I have to be sleeping well, I have to be eating good food and I have to be exercising because when one sort of falls out of place, everything else is a massive knock-on effect and it really starts to bring your vibe down. I think people just have to get into a flow and accept that you are going to have days where you feel down, and you feel flat, and you’re not going to want to do anything but don’t let a bad day of eating and exercise be a bad week and become a month. Just accept it, acknowledge it, move on and the next day say, ‘I’m going to set my alarm. Set the intention to wake up and do something.’ The days you really do set that intention and say, ‘Right, tomorrow morning, I’m going to get up and do my exercise. It’s non-negotiable. I’m going to go for a quick walk or do a little YouTube workout,’ and it’s done. It’s done and dusted and then the rest of the day, you can move forward knowing you’ve done it.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, absolutely. You’re inspiring me as we’re chatting [laughter]. I’ll make better effort again tomorrow. I wanted to go back to something you were saying before about resilience and also when you saw some of the things your friends were doing, you were reluctant because you didn’t want to go down that same path. Do you feel like you are a more risk-averse person as a result because I certainly do feel like risk was not something I wanted to take often?

Joe Wicks: No, I think I’m quite confident. I quite like feeling uncomfortable. I like the words ‘seek discomfort’ and ‘do things that challenge you.’ Don’t stay in your lane and stay in your box. Be brave and that can be showing vulnerability. It can be being adventurous. It can be travelling. It can be seeing the world. As a parent, I’m really laid back and I’m certainly not uptight, anxious and panicking. I let Marley go on the big swing. I get Indie on my electric skateboard and I take them out on the sea. I just love doing things that are adventurous. I wasn’t a withdrawn child. I think I was the opposite. I was hyperactive. I was in your face. I was really loud. I was annoying. My mum always calls me a windup merchant. If she grounded me or took something off me, like my PlayStation, I would just constantly nag her until eventually, she’d crack and give it to me. I wasn’t someone who was shy and sat around in the corner. I was really vocal and really quite high energy. I think, as adults, we are such a product of our childhood and if you’re someone who is quite brave, bold and adventurous as a kid - like I was climbing the walls and doing all sorts of things and I think I’ve just carried that through to my adulthood and my parenting as well. I just love having fun. I constantly want to do things that are fun. I want to constantly take the kids and do new things they’ve never done before. I’m constantly thinking, ‘How can I take them on little adventures and do things with them?’ I think I actually like taking risks in life. Even with the social media stuff, I thought, ‘Do you know what? I’m just going to put myself out there and go and do YouTube videos and start sharing content.’ That was a massive decision because it led to The Body Coach and all that stuff.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s funny. The reason I ask is just because with things related to mental health and wellbeing, I think sometimes there can be a bit of risk aversion. For me, I was confident for all I maybe wasn’t engaging in certain things. I worried about my mum a lot. I only saw her at weekends and I was almost kind of in a carer role. I didn’t want to do anything that would take me away from her but in terms of resilience, I think you’re absolutely right. It does build resilience and I think independence and confidence. I think as an adult and certainly as a teenager, I had to grow up a lot quicker than I otherwise would have done and I think that has definitely set me well in life but the risk aversion has been things related to... I was quite independent and happy to go travelling and do things like that. Risk aversion didn’t exist there but it did exist in things like not wanting to drink alcohol. I was really worried that it would make me anxious and that would make me sick or not wanting to put myself in certain situations where I might feel anxious. I think that was something that really had an impact. So when you were saying about not wanting to do those things, I know your situation was very specific because of your dad’s addiction but I just wondered if perhaps that same level of risk aversion has stayed with you.

Joe Wicks: Look, I still like a drink and stuff. I’m someone who can party and socialise but I can just put it down. I’m not someone who’s got that kind of addictive gene like some people in my family. My granddad was an alcoholic and then my dad was a drug addict and I thought I was going to be the same. Obviously, when I started to have a drink and socialise, I thought, ‘I can do this and have fun but I can also put it down.’ I didn’t feel concerned really after a while. I thought, ‘I’m okay to do this recreationally, have a bit of fun and have a drink.’ I wasn’t ever dependent on alcohol or drugs and so I think, for me, it didn’t really affect me in that way.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: I think so many children worry about there being that genetic link and it’s not necessarily the case. I think it’s such an important message to send that just because your parent had a mental illness does not mean that you will have the same thing. You spoke about your mum’s trauma and so often, these things are activated by previous trauma. You talk about such a lovely childhood despite the situation you were in, so it’s seeing that environment plays such an important part as well and not everybody has the same outcome just because a parent did.

Joe Wicks: Yeah, I really wanted to uncover that, and investigate that, and find out if that was the case. If a parent has a mental health issue, does it always end up with the child having the same issue when they grow up? But it’s not the case and what I’ve seen are so many amazing stories of people that, like you said, have become young carers and have become really loving, compassionate and really wonderful human beings because of the mental health issues their parents faced. So I think it really comes down to the individual, doesn’t it? I don’t think you should fear that because your mum and dad have anxiety or they’re suffering with depression that you are guaranteed to experience that. You might find that you can actually deal with your emotions and come out of it stronger. I think it’s just different for everybody, isn’t it? I think you’ve got to be positive and keep doing the things that help which is going to be communication, like talking about how you’re feeling. I’m someone who’s not ashamed to show vulnerability.

I got really upset when we went into lockdown again and I did an Instagram live and just got really upset. I cried in front of thousands of people and I thought, ‘Why am I crying?’ But I thought, ‘This is a good thing just to show that it’s okay to be upset. It’s okay to be a man and be vulnerable.’ So many people messaged me that day saying, ‘Thank you for sharing that because I’ve been really struggling myself and I’m trying to be this really strong, stable father but I’m upset and I’m scared of losing my job. I don’t want to tell my wife because I’m just going to upset her.’ People just don’t want to give their emotions and put their burden on someone else but really, it shares the burden, and it shares the load, and you feel like you can actually communicate and you can really work on things. I think the number one thing, as we always say, is just to talk. Keep talking. Talk to people that you love. People will listen to you and people will support you.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Absolutely, and the kids that don’t feel they can talk, hopefully, will feel more so again now that they can. There just needs to be a community around this for children I think and it’s okay to talk about mental health, your own and your parents, if you’re in that situation. How old are your kids?

Joe Wicks: Indie has just turned three and Marley is 18 months old.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: So a bit young for the mental health chat maybe but will you talk to them about mental health?

Joe Wicks: I always say to Indie... and I love this response she gives me because I used to say, ‘Why does Daddy exercise?’ and she says, ‘Because it makes us happy.’ I’m just teaching her that exercise is something I do to feel good, to smile and laugh. We giggle and we play. We hang on the pull-up bar together and we challenge each other and stuff. She can see the link. She can see that when Daddy exercises, he’s smiling and he’s having fun. I’m programming her to realise that this is something we do as a family. This is something that’s fun. She was obviously there through all the PE With Joe workouts. She would run into the living room with Marley and they would be dressed up and they had fun. I’m making fitness and exercise a common thing in the house and so that really is my way of saying, ‘Look, this is what we do to help ourselves feel happy.’ This is about mental health. It’s the same with the food. I say, ‘Right, we’re going to put this into our porridge. We’re going to add some nuts and berries because these are really good sources of fats, vitamins and fibre.’ She’s learning little nuggets of information but I haven’t sat down and proper given her the heavy mental health conversation. I like to think that just my life, how I live my life, how I interact with her, how I show vulnerability and how I communicate that she’ll learn through my experience. I don’t need to really sit down and describe anxiety and depression yet. But I did visit a primary school in London that has started doing classes specifically on mental health and parental mental health to describe how parents might be feeling with like a little grey cloud over their heads. It’s just a really lovely way of getting children thinking about that.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: That’s a really good idea because sometimes I think there is chat about how to recognise your own mental health but that’s a really important to talk to kids about how their parents might be feeling or their carers. That’s a really, really good idea actually.

Joe Wicks: Yeah, I think it should be something that’s taught in schools, just like I think school children should be taught about exercise, nutrition and also social media and dealing with the pressure that comes with that. I think every child should be given the chance to learn about mental health and what it means to communicate. It should be something that’s really encouraged because I think the more sensitive, emotional and empathetic our children can be, the happier they’re going to live because they’re going to really interact with each other differently but also learn to love themselves and deal with their own feelings and have better emotional regulation from a younger age.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, absolutely. Even with the PE With Joe, we did it with our kids and they see the parents engaging as well and if that conversation is happening alongside things like family activity and family exercise, then they’re making that connection and they’re making it as a family. It’s the recognition that everyone has mental health. Your mum and dad have it as well. They’re human and sometimes they might not be feeling top-notch and that’s okay and it’s okay to talk about it.

Joe Wicks: I’m glad you enjoyed it.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, it was brill.

Joe Wicks: If you remember, I talked about a character called Captain Seratonin [laughter]. I always used to say, ‘You might be feeling a little bit stressed now. You might be feeling a little bit flat and low but by the time we come to the end of this workout, you’re going to feel this Captain Seratonin.’ That, again, is just like a little way of describing something visual that kids can go, ‘Oh, I feel better now I’ve got this serotonin in my brain. Where has that come from? It’s come from the exercise.’ I’m always promoting the message around mental health for toddlers, for kids, and for everyone. I just don’t use certain words. I just describe it in a fun kind of visual way and that’s what I mean when I was talking about the DNA. Get that into a child’s DNA that when you’re young and you do some exercise, you feel just as good as when you’re an adult. It’s something you can always use as a tool to change how you feel.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, absolutely. Certainly, we absolutely loved it and I’m sure across the country and around the world. Gosh, people were doing it everywhere. It changed the whole structure of our day in such a positive way and certainly, my husband ended up... he’s so good because he ended up getting up at five, before we did, to do his activities. There was that collective element as well and knowing that everybody was doing it I think had such a really important role to play. It was just brilliant, so thank you for that just as an aside.

Joe Wicks: Thank you.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: With regards to your mum and dad, when your two are older, do you think you will tell them about their grandparents’ mental health?

Joe Wicks: Yeah, I definitely think I will. Yeah, it’s not something I’m ashamed of. I think when they’re old enough, I can describe what my childhood was like and let them know because I wasn’t born into this life. I’ve worked really hard and I want my kids to appreciate and understand where I’ve come from and how hard I’ve worked. I want them to really value and appreciate the life we live because I’ve worked so hard and we’ve got a wonderful house and I’ve got a nice, safe environment. As a kid, for me, I grew up in a council flat that was tiny and you didn’t have space. You were just living on top of each other and squished in between other people. It was a different life. I think I’ll definitely share that experience and won’t be ashamed or embarrassed and my mum and dad will be fine with that as well. I think it’s just a nice thing to understand the history of your family as well; what you’ve been through and why you’re all here today and the people you are.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, it absolutely is. My eldest is eight and he asks about Gran. She passed away in February, sadly. He’s very aware that Gran had mental health problems or mental illness. It’s so hard. The language around it and the appropriate language use is a whole other field actually articulating it. She had psychosis and schizoaffective disorder and so she had highs, lows, hallucinations and all sorts. To have that conversation with an eight-year-old can be quite tricky and he worries that that might happen to him and says, ‘So if that happened to Gran, is that going to happen to me?’ So it’s about balancing that conversation and if parents were equipped to have those conversations with their children, which I think is what Our Time are aiming to do with the KidsTime workshops, then that’s such a huge step forward and would make such a difference I think to children by just starting the conversation and knowing how to have it in an age-appropriate way. I don’t know if I’m doing a very good job.

Joe Wicks: Yeah, I agree. Look, I was really moved by that class that I went to at the KidsTime session because there was a seven-year-old boy there and then there was a 14-year-old girl there. They were all really young and they were all interacting and doing an activity together and using their own vocabulary and their own experiences. They weren’t describing their mum and dad. They were just describing a mum and dad or a family and that way of detaching yourself from it in a sort of third person way was a good way of getting them to talk. They were really into it and by the end of it, they were dancing and singing. They were acting and they did a little kind of role-play thing. I thought it was a great way of getting children to communicate. Like you said, it’s got to be age-appropriate but you’ll just know when the time is right. You’ll feel like the time is right. Every time you unravel a layer of your story, I think your children will just be a little bit more knowledgeable and a little bit wiser. I can’t ever see it being a bad thing and I can only see it as a positive thing because they’re going to understand you better. They’re going to feel safer and they’re going to be able to see when you’re down and understand why you’re having a bit of a low day. ‘What does that mean? Oh, it’s nothing to do with me but she’ll get a good night’s sleep and maybe tomorrow morning she’ll be in a more positive space and we can do something together.’

So I think it’s really, really good for children to understand what their parents are going through as opposed to hiding it and them hearing conversations. I mean this is back in the day before mobile phones but my mum used to be on the phone and I could hear her talking about my dad. You could hear everything with the arguments and so I always knew what was going on. They just didn’t tell me. I understood everything. I knew so much but they just didn’t say it. They wouldn’t say it to your face and so you were constantly walking around pretending you didn’t hear stuff and walking on eggshells. As a kid, I think all you really want is stability and consistency. You want to just know what’s going on and understand why and so I think the quickest way to that is just to be communicating with your family and your children and really opening up that conversation.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Absolutely, and this has come up before and children’s imaginations can run away with them and if they’re getting some insight, as you did, into there being something that’s going on but they’re not having the conversation, they’re left to imagine themselves what’s happening. If you’re then feeling like you can’t talk about it, as you said you didn’t want to... you found exercise which is amazing but you can see how some children might then become overwhelmed and not cope. That’s when we’ve got problems. That’s why I think children of parents with mental illness are more likely to go on... not because the parents had a mental illness but because the communication around it needs to be improved which is why it’s so amazing that you came here today. I mean honestly, Joe, thank you so much. It’s just so important and having you talk about your experience will be so helpful to so many people.

Joe Wicks: Well, listen, I’ve really enjoyed the conversation and I’m really glad that I got to meet Our Time and the work they’re doing because it’s really uplifting. I was really feeling like the documentary was starting to feel really heavy and really down but when I went there, I felt like it was a really positive step and an amazing initiative and if it gets rolled out and more people get access to it, it’s going to save a lot of lives. It’s going to transform a lot of children’s lives as well because they’re going to go on to become parents one day. They’re going to be adults. I just love the mission of that charity and I think it’s wonderful. So I’m now really going to do everything I can to use my channels and my platforms to keep spreading the message and this documentary I’m doing with BBC1 is hopefully going to continue that conversation...

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Absolutely.

Joe Wicks: ...and shine a light on the amazing work that Our Time is doing. So thank you so much, keep doing your amazing work and I wish you all the best of luck.

[Outro music]

Dr Pamela Jenkins: You too. Thank you so much. You too, Joe. I can’t wait to see the documentary and hear more about your story. I’m really looking forward to it. Thank you.

Joe Wicks: Thank you so much, Pamela.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Joe Wicks, The Body Coach. I hope you enjoyed hearing from Joe. Look out for his BBC TV documentary exploring these issues further when it comes out soon.

My Family, Mental Illness... and Me is a podcast from Our Time with support from the Mental Health Foundation.

ct your GP, the Samaritans on:

Thank you so much for being with us today. Subscribe to our feed so you get future episodes automatically downloaded and if you know someone who’d benefit from hearing these stories we’re sharing, please let them know we’re here. That’s really important. We really want people to know that they’re not alone. This is a Bespoken Media production with music and sound design by Joel Cox. See you next time.

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