Nigel Owens: Rugby ref’s string of health issues – ‘My life was an unrelenting nightmare’

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Nigel Owens, 50, has become a full-time dairy farmer since hanging up his referee’s whistle. He’s swapped one high-pressure environment for another, describing his new profession as a “very, very difficult” way of life. In both jobs, Owens has encountered people, particular men, and younger men, who have been struggling with mental health.

“I’ve spoken to quite a few people over the years, you know, men in particular, and younger men as well, who’ve been struggling with various different issues, whether it be mental health issues, dealing with similar issues that I had around acceptance of my sexuality,” he said.

“I think in general, across the board, men find it difficult to open up because of that macho image, I guess,” he told

Owens was the first in rugby to come out as being gay.

He told the BBC in 2017 in his younger years he tried to “suppress” his sexuality and he “became very depressed”.  

And in the hope of reaching out to other young people struggling with mental health, he was also one of the first sportsmen to speak openly about what he considers “the biggest regret” of his life, a suicide attempt.

Owens also considers another “first” – speaking about dealing with bulimia.

He said: “Since the age of 18, I have had bulimia nervosa.

“It is a disorder of overeating followed by fasting or self-induced vomiting or purging.

“It was a secret I was still battling to control as I stepped on to the pitch to referee the Rugby World Cup in 2015.”

Owens was “sucked even further into the vortex of self-harm and depression” when he began using steroids.

He explained: “In my eyes, I was now too thin and now thought “no-one I find attractive is ever going to find me attractive while I’m skinny.

“So I went to the gym and began using steroids. I became hooked on them for the next seven, eight years.

“Mental health issues, depression over my sexuality, bulimia and steroids – my life was an unrelenting nightmare.”

Owens’ heart-wrenching story of how he attempted to take his own life at the age of 26 is one of the most viewed rugby videos on TikTok in the last month.

He said: “I left a note for my mam and dad saying I couldn’t cope anymore.

“And that day I did something I shall regret for the rest of my life.

“I suppose I was scared of being found out. Nobody had come out in the macho world of rugby, and that just put me on the dark, dark road.”

Following the overdose, Owens was rushed to hospital where he remained for three days.

When he finally came out of intensive care he was told that had an additional 20 minutes passed before he received medical attention, he would have died.

He said: “This is the moment when my life changed forever, but this was also the moment when my life was saved.”

Urging men to speak up about their mental health, Owens told this year: “Men seem to want to bottle it up and don’t want to show those feelings for many different, various reasons. Some see it as a sign of weakness, they’re the head of the household, so to speak.

“I’ve spoken to quite a few over the years [reluctant to speak out] and sort of suggested to some, you know, where they can get help from or to seek help or to ask for help.

“And I know that certainly has helped some, yeah. There are so many different ways you can get in contact with people now.”

People suffering with their mental health can call Samaritans for free 24/7 on 116 123, email [email protected] or visit for online self-help tools and information.

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