Jon Mills Finds His Answers

Fitness expert overcomes suicidality to find purpose

Posted May 25, 2016

Jon Mills was put on this earth to pursue his athletic goals and to help people do the same.   

 Jon Mills
Source: Jon Mills

But it took a long time for Mills to find his purpose. Once a promising athlete, Mills faced poverty, depression, addiction and, ultimately, a suicide attempt.

In a miraculous twist of fate, Mills was saved from his suicide attempt and given a second chance to choose life, take a new path and find his purpose. Through his personal training/lifestyle coaching business and his movie, “Peak Physique,” which documents his journey to becoming a fitness model, he aims to share what he has learned through these experiences to help others also pursue a healthy and purposeful life. 

Positive psychologists have proposed that leading a “meaningful” or “purposeful” life, in which one pursues a particular life goal, is a key to well-being. And research suggests that people with a greater sense of purpose live longer and healthier lives. For example, one research study followed more than 6,000 people over the course of 14 years and found that those who had a higher sense of purpose lived longer than those leading a less purposeful life.

Growing up, Mills found his purpose in athletics. “I had a very promising athletic career, potentially as an Olympic swimmer. I was on goal to potentially compete for Great Britain.”

But when Mills’ mother experienced two divorces – one from Mills’ biological father when Mills was four and the other from Mills’ stepfather when Mills was 13, the family was thrown into poverty. In particular, the family lost their house and moved into low-income housing, known in England as an “estate.” Mills had trouble adapting to his new environment.

“Everything got shaken up when we lost the house,” Mills explained. “My whole social environment and everything that I lived by changed. I was trying to be two people. There was the athlete and the guy who was going to do really well in school.  And then there was the guy who moved on to an estate, where he did whatever he needed in order to survive.”

Survival was not always easy, as Mills faced the threat of violence in his new home. “Within a few months of moving onto this estate, I got badly beaten up by a group of guys who were a big and well-known family on the estate.” Mills explained. “And my mom tried to charge the family. She told the police. And they ended up bringing them around to our house and getting them to apologize because they were informants for the police on the estate.” 

“So we started to learn the street rules and that we were living in a different environment, and for me that was a mess.”

Mills’ new school turned out to be no refuge. “School was very tough for me because I was bullied. It was not a place where I was nurtured. It was an inner-city London school with lots of issues with teachers having classes out of control.” 

Living in such a stressful environment and having to operate under a completely new set of rules for survival, Mills began to lose his sense of purpose and turned to recreational drugs as a form of coping.

“I turned my back on my athletic career and started to find other ways of keeping myself occupied outside of the house. I think that was part of the reason why I chose a different path and chose self-medicating,” Mills said. “Because I had to be someone else in order to survive in that estate. I had to become more street-wise in order to survive.”

Eventually, Mills suffered from a cycle of drug use and depression. “I suffered with depression all through my younger years. I started to self-medicate and was around family members who were depressed as well. So you can be taught behaviors as well. I ended up going to university, but struggling — struggling in relationships, creating cycles where I would inevitably destroy close relationships, and I never really understood who I was.”

Depression is one of the most common forms of mental illness, with as many as 20 percent of the population experiencing some form of mood disorder (e.g., major depression, dysthymia, bipolar disorder) at some point in their lifetime. Depression can be a chronic condition, with depressed people at risk for relapse over their lives. And people who struggle with depression may experience significant loss of physical, social and role functioning comparable to or worse than that of other chronic medical issues.

Many people who are depressed engage in negative thinking to the point where they do not feel that they have control of their thoughts. Mills described this experience. “We all have self-doubt. We all have negative feelings. It’s just that when someone is depressed, they run riot.  You don’t have control of them, and you allow your emotions to take control over situations. And then your behavior is in response to those emotions.”

Eventually, things became so bad that Mills attempted suicide. “It came to a massive head in 2005, when I found myself on Tower Bridge. I didn’t know how to live my life and be happy,” he explained. “And I didn’t understand what my purpose was. I was destroying relationships. I had left recreational drugs behind a long time ago, but alcohol then had become something I was using more often. I felt like I was a burden to everybody. I didn’t know what to do, and I got to a point where I was like, ‘That’s it.’

“I couldn’t get rid of this dark cloud that seemed to push me down, no matter what I did.” 

So Mills attempted to jump from Tower Bridge – but fate intervened, and he was rescued by a passer-by. “I didn’t know this, but there was a guy walking over, and he had obviously been watching the situation. I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to hit the water, and then hit concrete,’” Mills explained. “The guy basically jumped as I went to go. I didn’t see him, but he was obviously right at my shoulder. As I went to jump, he jumped. And if he had missed me, he would have gone in with me, but he managed to flip me over backwards and fall to the side as well.

“I can’t comprehend how he managed to do that. So this guy flew out from nowhere, and to this day, I don’t know who he is. At the time, I think I actually ran at him because I was so out of my mind.  Someone had taken that choice away from me, and that is what I wanted to do. And then I had to live with that.

“I haven’t been able to thank him.” 

This second chance was Mills’ first opportunity to change the course of his life. “And the healing process — you’ve been given another chance, and I think that’s how I view my life now.  Every day that I wake up is a gift that someone else gave me,” he said.

But Mills was frustrated by the assessment and treatment options presented by his general practitioner (GP). Research suggests that GPs may not be as effective at detecting depression as standardized assessments. Mills thought his GP minimized his depression.

“I went to my GP to get some help. He was like, ‘You’ve got a job. You’ve got a girlfriend. You’re at university.’ And I was telling him, ‘This really real situation happened.’ He’s looking at me like, ‘Well, you don’t really fall under any of the criteria of being suicidal or being high risk,’” Mills explained. “I got pinged from one person to the other to the other to the other, and I got so frustrated. Someone like me who didn’t get labeled and didn’t get the help that I needed, initially, I felt like the system was failing me.”

Mills thinks that it’s hard for people who have not been depressed, even practitioners, to understand how powerful depression can be. “I think that what someone on the outside struggles with is that they don’t understand that. They’ve never really allowed those thoughts and those voices to take control. They’ve maybe always been able to self-talk, or they’ve never had such negative thoughts,” he said.

Ultimately, Mills was prescribed an anti-depressant, which he took, but he still did not feel that he understood his depression. “I wanted answers. I wanted to find out why I couldn’t turn these negative thoughts off,” he said. “Why I had this cloud pushing down on me, and why I couldn’t control it. Everybody thought I should be able to, and I couldn’t.”

In search of his path, Mills traveled to Thailand.  “So I traveled around Thailand for a bit, and that really helped me. I was in Thailand for three months, and I ended up going to a Buddhist retreat, which was something really unusual,” he explained. “And I spent 13 days in silence, just learning about Buddhism and meditation techniques.”

Research suggests that there is evidence that mindfulness approaches are effective in managing a range of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and substance-abuse disorders.

Eventually, through this experience, Mills rediscovered his purpose. “When I was going to choose to live, I had to try and work out who I was and what was my purpose in life,” Mills said.

“And I honestly felt my purpose was to be an athlete. When I was in the pool, and I was the athlete, that was my purpose. There was intent and purpose behind everything I was doing in the pool.  It was there that I realized that I needed to get back into the athletic world, and I needed to work in that. And I started exercising in my room, in the jungle.” 

However, this initial attempt to re-engage in athletic activity did not work for Mills, and he fell back into a cycle of alcoholism. “I came back, and I started to work as a trainer in this big gym. And I found myself going through the motions and again not really believing in myself,” he recalled. “I found myself going back into the old routine of going to the pub and being single in London and creating old cycles again until I decided to leave that gym and open my own business up.”

It was at that point that Mills got saved again, when he met the person who would be his mentor, Angie Dowds. Dowds was a personal trainer who participated in the TV show “The Biggest Loser” as a fitness trainer.

“I stumbled across Angie Dowds, who then became my mentor, who since, unfortunately, committed suicide. She killed herself back in 2011. But she became my mentor, and she basically saw something in me,” Mills explained. “She saw that I was basically doing just enough and had no real self-belief. She gave me some tough love and introduced me to a hard training style.”

“And during that time, we became very good friends and actually became confidants. She was training for the second season as the female celebrity trainer on ‘The Biggest Loser.’ And she had very similar issues to me — depression, recreational drugs and addiction — so we had a lot in common.

“Most people saw her as this powerful, strong individual who just inspired and motivated people. And then when I got to know her a little bit better, I realized that she was really struggling with some serious stuff. And I remember she said to me, ‘Should I do the second season of “The Biggest Loser”?’”

“And I was like, ‘Absolutely — if it’s something you want to do, and you think you can manage it.’ I didn’t realize how her mental health was being affected at the time,” Mills said. “It turns out the show was something that was far too stressful for her. She ended up taking her own life.”

This was a huge loss for Mills, but one that strengthened his commitment to his own purpose. “It was devastating and something that I think about daily,” he explained. “I try through my training and my projects and everything that I do – I try to do right by her and by her memory. She was die-hard, super tough.

“So when I’m feeling weak and giving myself an easy way out, I hear her saying, ‘One more rep!’”

Mills eventually met another guiding light in his life – Jana – who became his wife and business partner. And together they moved to Canada, and have focused on developing a personal-training and lifestyle-coaching business that seeks to inspire people to find purpose in health and fitness. In order to help people develop healthy methods of training, Mills came up with the idea for “Peak Physique,” a documentary that tracked Mills himself as he trained for a fitness model. 

“For me, I had lost my inner athlete years ago, and actually, through this process I reignited it. I found this new self-belief — to really compete and find that competitive edge – to want to win and to do anything that I could within a healthy realm to get there,” Mills explained. “And I hadn’t found that part of me for a very long time, and I never expected to feel that during this process.

“I had the idea that if I was going to do a show, I’m all about education and empowering people to make informed decisions about training towards goals,” he said. “What happens to the body? What are the pros and cons? Don’t sugarcoat it.  What exactly does it take? We let the viewer see every part of it. My doctors got involved. I got my bloodwork done in the beginning, the middle and the end.  The cameras were at homes, and you got to see the stress on the relationships, posing and learning to pose, and I mean everything.” 

During the course of filming the documentary, Mills recognized the potential pitfalls that he hopes the film will help others avoid.

“Any athlete that is at the top of their game is walking that tightrope between, are they healthy or are they pushing their bodies to a point where it is almost dangerous?” he said. “But it’s what you do afterwards, it’s the plan you have for after competition, it’s the support network you have during and post. It’s such an isolating situation, and people don’t really understand. And it’s all about body image and about how you look.”

This hyper-focus on body image puts competitive bodybuilders and fitness models at great danger of experiencing body dysmorphia – or negative and perhaps distorted views of one’s body.

Mills knows from his own experience that surrounding ourselves with the right people can make the difference. “I had to sever up loads of relationships with friends and take myself out of situations and change relationships with family members and build other relationships,” he said. “And understand the type of person that you need to be with. Without meeting my wife, I don’t think I’d be able to achieve half of the things I’ve been able to achieve in the last five years.  Because she allowed me to dream, but she also gives me the room and the acceptance to try to take risks. She has a real belief in me, which gives me self-belief.”

And Mills takes a cue from his own experience and teaches the people he trains to train with purpose. “You still have to train with intent and purpose,” he said. “What is your purpose? What is your plan, and what is the commitment? Be realistic.”

Ultimately, Mills is optimistic as he continues his purposeful journey. “I can achieve anything I put my mind to. I had some terribly dark times, and I got over that with some real self-exploration and mental strength,” he said. “And you can do anything. You really can, as long as you have a purpose, self-belief, commitment and you do things with intent.”

And he encourages others who may be struggling with finding their purpose to not give up. “Life is a gift and your daily choices affect your long term future,” Mills said. “It starts with the little things: hydrate, sleep, sunlight, nutrient dense food. But with the bigger things, relax! Be patient. Believe in yourself. Everything happens for a reason. A powerful life lesson is waiting to be learned.”

And just like Mills had some luck in his life, he is hoping that he can be around to give someone else a lucky break.

“I think everyone in their journey needs some luck.”

Michael Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman onTwitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.

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