Advocacy, Community

Adventures abound for mental health advocate

Lee Griggs after pogoing up Mount Fyffe in Kaikoura. Photo: Supplied.

Staying silent about mental health is one of New Zealand’s biggest problems, says 31-year-old father of three, Lee Griggs.

But rocking the pram holding his sleeping son, Lee defys that trope; choosing instead to speak candidly about how mental illness impacted his life, and how he is fighting back.

Originally from Suffolk in the south east of England, Lee says how has struggled with mental illness his entire life.

Highs and lows, anxiety and depression have ebbed and flowed throughout his life at different times, he says.

“I was a very shy child,” Lee says.

“That sort of progressed into not being able to make friends.”

Lee with wife Ally and his three sons, Harry, Isaac and George. Photo: Supplied.
Lee with wife Ally and his three sons, Harry, Isaac and George. Photo: Supplied.

Now a vineyard machinery operator in the Awatere Valley, Lee says he has always felt uncomfortable and awkward in social situations.

“I isolated myself, away from people and social interactions, all the way through high school,” he says.

Only in the last few years at his UK high school did Lee manage to build a group of friends, and then, his family moved to New Zealand.

Aged 19, in a new country with no friends Lee once again found himself isolated.

“When I left high-school, I had quite good mental health and a hold on that social anxiety. I had confidence in myself,” he says.

“Coming here, you leave all that support network, all those friends you’ve built up, all your family and just the familiarity of day to day life.

“You start again at square one and it set if back off, basically.”

But Lee discovered hope and while by no means does he consider himself ‘cured’, he is proud of how far he has come.

Lee's Guinness World Record for the greatest vertical distance ascended on a pogo stick in 24 hours - 1,602 metres. Photo: Supplied.
Lee’s Guinness World Record for the greatest vertical distance ascended on a pogo stick in 24 hours – 1,602 metres. Photo: Supplied.

As he talks about how defeated the illness, his passion is clear in his voice.

“I always think the most important thing with mental health is getting people opening up and talking about they’re everyday feelings.

“Stopping people at the top of the cliff rather than being the ambulance at the bottom.

“We’re a developed country, we’ve got a lot of intelligent people but for some reason we’ve got the highest suicide rate in the OECD.

“It’s sort of that toughen up, give yourself a concrete pill mentality.

“Whereas it actually needs to be a reverse of that,” Lee says.

Lee says getting people to talk about their everyday problems, as they happen, rather than bottling them up is key.

“If people are more willing to open up when they’re having a bad day, and us as humans were a little bit more skilled in how to help people in their lives, if we could do that as a nation, the culture in New Zealand could be a lot different.

He says his social anxiety, the fear of being around people and knowing what to say and how to interact, caused him to isolate himself.

“If you’re not around people, you’re not scared of it…But then you’re alone.

“And it’s a pretty lonely world, and that brings on depression.

“Luckily, I did have my family.

“They were my support network and I ended up coming out the other side of it.”

Lee says a decision to travel was the turning point in his illness.

“It was pure escapism really.

“As soon as I lifted that and said bugger it, I’m going travel, the whole thing lifted off me.”

But Lee never went travelling.

While saving for his trip, Lee met his wife, Ally and stayed in Marlborough.

“I just wanted to run away from it all, be on the road where I could have fleeting conversations with people.

“I think that was what initially lifted the focus on the social anxiety which enabled me to go out and focus on moving,” he says.

Lee says he never took medication or attended counselling for his mental illness.

“That makes me think it probably wasn’t that bad… but it felt bad enough,” he says.

“That gave me the empathy to go, if I felt that bad, how do other people feel that have gone further, getting medication or even worse, taking their own life?”

Then, in 2016, the 7.8 Kaikoura earthquake rocked the rural town of Seddon.

“It made me realise it wasn’t just me,” Lee says.

“I saw quite a lot of people, especially the children, have anxiety issues as well.

“There’s a lot of people out there that suffer, and it needed to be spoken about.

Lee decided then he wanted to do something to raise awareness for mental health issues.

With a background in competitive road cycling and a passion for running, he knew he had the ability to do a physical challenge to raise funds and awareness.

Lee's family are his biggest supporters. Here they are pictured at the top of Mount Fyffe, in Kaikoura, after Lee's pogo ascent in March. Photo: Supplied.
Lee’s family are his biggest supporters. Here they are pictured at the top of Mount Fyffe, in Kaikoura, after Lee’s pogo ascent in March. Photo: Supplied.

But with a newborn baby, Lee didn’t have time to run the length of New Zealand or cycle to the moon, he knew he would have to do something completely off the wall to get attention for his chosen cause.

“I was driving tractors up and down the rows bored out of my mind and I was looking up the valley and I thought the Molesworth would be a really neat place to ride a bike through,” Lee says.

“I’ve always wanted to do it, but I knew that it wasn’t long enough or out there enough just by riding the bike.”

In a flash of inspiration, a unicycle popped into Lee’s head. “I thought if I can learn to ride it 20 metres up the road, then I should be able to ride it through the Molesworth.”

After 9 months of planning and training, Lee completed the one-wheeled 182km journey through New Zealand’s largest farm.

“That was the first fundraiser and awareness thing that we did.

“It just sparks that conversation.”

While training for the Molesworth trip, Lee learnt about the five ways to wellbeing – exercise, learn, connect, give and take notice.

“Although there wasn’t anything specific that got me through my depression and social anxiety, since I’ve been doing these challenges, I’ve learnt more about myself and how to deal with my mental health than I ever did.”

Earlier this year, Lee bounced his way up Mt Fyffe, in Kaikoura, on a pogo stick.

He completed the 1600 metre ascent in just under 24 hours, earning a Guiness World Record for most uphill distance covered on a pogo stick in a 24-hour period.

“Every challenge that I now take on I have to learn something new,” he says.

And Lee has dedicated the next decade to completing “seemingly impossible” challenges.

“The message with the Mental Adventure Series, the tagline, is a decade of seemingly impossible adventures to promote positive mental wellbeing.

“To do that through physical illustrations of our mental struggles we see in life and how we cope.

“It’s drawing a parallel that when you’re depressed, even the most simple things can seem impossible.

“Getting out of that depression can seem quite impossible, seeing that light at the end of the tunnel.

Lee’s next challenge will be taking things backwards, to the basics of riding a bicycle

The idea, “if you’re going to keep moving forward, you’re going to stay balanced.”

Keep up with Lee’s Mental Adventure series on Facebook and Instagram.

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