Welsh Lives: How a sculptor and an ocean rower used their passions during the darkest of times

Adeola Dewis meets two inspiring men who have used their passions to overcome their own mental battles. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

As those experiencing mental health issues almost tripled during the pandemic, finding a passion and enjoyment in the small things has become more important than ever.

According to research by Cardiff University, 11.7% of Welsh people suffered severe mental health issues prior to Covid, with that number climbing to 28.1% by April 2020.

As ITV Cymru Wales' series Welsh Lives relaunches this week, Adeola Dewis meets two men overcoming their mental health problems through their own passions.

The series, which will first air on Tuesday 11th January at 7.30pm, celebrates the lives of ordinary people with extraordinary stories.

Nick Elphick is a sculptor based in Llandudno but he explains how his love for art grew through the difficult times he experienced growing up.

Nick was dyslexic in school and admits: "I struggled with myself and didn't have any direction. I was quite self-destructive."

"I used to hide in sketching and drawing and didn't realise that it was anything special, it was my escape."

Art has been an outlet for Nick and a way of dealing with life's obstacles. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

He recalls a particular day after school which was a turning point in his life.

"It's a hazy memory but I just remember acting out, I used to act out quite heavily, but this time I thought 'right I'm just going to draw on the walls in my bedroom' knowing that it would cause an issue. But I just wanted to let go."

"I thought 'Right I'm going to have a real telling off' and my mum came home and I think that's when things really changed in my life. My mum came home and she was like 'Wow this is amazing! You're so talented!' And I suddenly had a sense of pride."

Ever since, art has been an outlet for Nick and a way of dealing with what has been thrown at him, bringing success along the way.

"I never decided to be an artist, I don't really like these labels of being an artist or sculptor, I never did it to make a business, I never did it to make money. I just did it because that's what I wanted to do."

"My language is sculpting. You can't make poetry without being able to understand language and so my language, to be able to say something, was in sculpture. That's been everything to me and being able to help me find myself."

Nick has gone on to sculpt some of the most iconic people including Olympians and the Queen.

Nick decided to sculpt his father after losing him to Parkinson's disease. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

A particularly dark time came after his father passed away from Parkinson's disease. It pushed Nick to create a sculpture of his father but it wasn't an easy process.

"Because he'd been ill for so long, it was hard to remember the real him and it was a real struggle. And I actually really struggled, I was going through a lot of torment at the time and I actually had to stop sculpting him and find some help about issues I was dealing with. I ended up in a really dark place eventually."

"When I'm not even able to make my artwork because I can't find myself then I know, you know."

For years, Nick struggled with eating disorders and a lack of self-worth. He explained: "I actually got very ill when I was young, I nearly died from anorexia and then it sort of changed into bulimia and also body dysmorphia."

"Thank god for finding St David's which helped me find a self respect and find myself and actually found artwork. I was able to subconsciously start to work things out through my art."

St David's College in Llandudno has a big focus on helping pupils with additional learning needs.

Nick wants to encourage students at his own college to find their own creative spark. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

In the Welsh Lives episode, Nick revisits the place where it all began and offer his words of wisdom to students who are in the same position he was in.

"Procrastination is very different to being lazy. I could either choose the issues I was going through to make me worse and see myself as that person or rise above it and become a better person. And St David's helped me do that."

"Creativity, being an artist, isn't about what it is you do, it's about the way you think and feel. I would say that I'm the happiest I've ever been in life because I've gone down the direction that I'm passionate about."

"It was a massive game-changer and I think art has basically saved my life."

Recalling how Nick was in school, Reverend Tim Hall explained: "Every child has got a gift. Our job is to find that gift."

"He needs to be in an open environment where he'd highly motivated. IT took some time for that to happen but when he did find his safe place and creative place, which was the art room, everything began to fall together for him. He gift then just blossomed."

As a thank you, Nick created a sculptor called 'Self' which he gifted to the college. He wants to encourage students to find their own creative spark.

John is an ex-firefighter with a love for the ocean. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Another man using his passion to overcome Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is John Haskell from Cardiff.

John is an ex-firefighter with a deep love for the ocean. One of his greatest achievements to date was rowing the Atlantic with his colleague Jamie Windsor.

John reminisced: "We were a bit naive on that one, I think the naivety got us through. We were so unprepared for it, we were just two blokes in a wooden rowing boat and off we went. Just totally unprepared really but learnt a lot and about yourselves."

The pair spent Christmas Day on the water drinking whiskey and simply enjoying themselves.

Along with his colleague Jamie, the pair spent one Christmas Day drinking whiskey on the Atlantic Ocean. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Jamie explained: "You need someone with comedy value which John's got, you need someone who's got a good sense of humour. When something goes wrong, there's not a blame game, you laugh and then try and fix the problem and move on. That's one of the most important things to look at with a rowing partner and John had that."

But rowing the Atlantic was not the biggest challenge John had to face. A few years after the expedition, John's career as a firefighter came to an abrupt end due to PTSD.

With children himself, he recalled a specific moment when he decided to throw in the towel after a flat fire involving a young boy.

"The boy who I held and got out of the car, who was visibly dead as I pulled him out of the car. I'd just dropped my boy off to my ex in a football kit ready for him to go to football and two hours later I had this little boy who looked the same, same hairstyle, same colour hair, in the same football kit. And something snapped then and I wasn't right since then."

"PTSD was never going to affect me because I talked. So when it come up and sneaked up on me like that and hit me for six, that was quite a shock."

"At the time it's all consuming and just devours who you are as a person. You can't function, you can't build relationships, I was at rockbottom."

John recalls one specific moment as a firefighter which became a turning point in his life. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Even during the difficult times, John tries to spend as much time on the water as he can explaining "I'm more at home on the water than on the land now".

He added: "Again, in my dark places where I went, I would take myself back to the ocean. The night skies were fantastic, swimming with whales, dolphins, just the expanse of the horizon and that amazing sense of privilege to be there right out in the middle of the ocean. Just can't describe it and that's why you've just got to do it again."

In Autumn 2019, John and his team of four, including a paramedic, were prepping for a new challenge; to become the first to row across the Indian Ocean, Australia to Africa, continent to continent.

His aim was to use the trip to raise awareness of PTSD but Covid struck.

Raising awareness around PTSD is a huge motivation for John. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

"We were all geared up to go, everything was fantastic, we were all excited. Almost at the stage of looking to book flights and everything. And then the dreaded Covid come along."

"We can't get to Australia, we tried last year, we tried the original year. It's still looking dodgy and now Omicron's out so because everything is in place and to keep momentum going, we're going to attempt the Atlantic again this coming March."

Despite the change in direction, John hasn't given up on the dream and hopes to wave the Welsh flag in Mombassa soon.

"It's up there with Everest, it's continent to continent, Australia to Africa. Just saying that in itself, you can see how big it is. The Indian is still a scalp to take, we're dead keen and we're not going to let it go. It's just on hold again."

John still holds onto the dream of becoming the first to row the Indian Ocean, from Australia to Africa. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Regardless of which ocean John rows across, he's still pushing the awareness around PTSD for emergency workers.

"It's nice for me to get the message across because I call it a glitch in my life. I did hit rock bottom. If anyone's going through it, it's not who you are, there is light at the end of the tunnel and on the other side and I've proved that."

"It sounds cheesy and a lot of people will laugh at this, but the ocean healed me. The thought again of that feeling of sitting in that boat and leaving shore and just disappearing over the horizon, the land gets smaller and lower on the horizon, it's fantastic, it really is."

Welsh Lives is broadcast on ITV Cymru Wales on Tuesdays at 7.30pm. The programme will also be available online at itv.com/walesprogrammes and as a podcast.