After years of crippling mental health struggles, Frank Bruno has perfected the practice of slowing down and switching off. Here we chat to the boxing legend about mental health being the toughest fight of his life, and how he has found his footing again through simple lifestyle changes
Frank Bruno is midway through a BBC Radio 5 Live interview ahead of our meeting – his booming voice and rumbling laugh making the faces of everyone in the studio instantly light up.
The man himself is a giant and flanked by fans when we shake hands. In fact, throughout our chat there are knocks on the door, and on the other side of it, a string of people who want to meet him.
Alongside his engaging personality, what’s instantly clear is Frank’s great vulnerability – which is unsurprising given what he has been through. At 57, he is one of Britain’s most famous and well-loved boxers, and a man very much in demand, but what he’s truly a champion of is mental health advocacy.
Today, we’re here to chat about Let Me Be Frank; Frank’s second book, which is a searingly honest account of his battle with bipolar disorder, and how he learnt that there’s no shame in asking for help.
Frank describes writing the book as a form of therapy, saying it’s as open as he’s ever been. By speaking out about his own struggles, he hopes to help others and bring about change.
Born in Hammersmith in 1961, Frank started boxing aged nine at Wandsworth Boys Club near where he grew up. After boxing as an amateur until 1980, he turned pro in 1982, and became heavyweight champion of the world in 1995, after beating Oliver McCall at a packed Wembley Stadium aged 34.
But crushing lows followed the heady highs, with Frank struggling with depression, and fighting a well-publicised battle with bipolar – being sectioned twice in 2012.
Let Me Be Frank is illuminating about the treatment Frank received at the hands of the mental health services. He is now trying to bring about some change as his personal mission – something he’s campaigning hard for.
“I went from boxing to panto, but little did I know then that there was a very rocky road still to come,” says Frank. “I had to speak out about the treatment I received after being sectioned, and being forced to take medication. And I will continue to talk about it – I was treated very badly.
“People don’t know what goes on in hospitals and too many people are so lost in there, unable to see a way out. I was on so many different drugs; I was numb, my face would swell up, and I was biting my tongue.
“I was told I’d be on medication for the rest of my life, but three months later they discharged me.
“Someone needs to speak out for the people going through this.”
Out of his struggles came some light, with Frank being named a government ambassador for mental health, being awarded an MBE, and launching The Frank Bruno Foundation in 2017, supporting those with mental ill-health. And, thankfully, happier times are on the horizon for the boxing legend, who became a grandfather for the first time this summer when his daughter Rachel gave birth to a girl. His elder daughter Nicola also gave birth to her first daughter in early October this year.
A settled, steady and quiet presence now, Frank has realised that he has to live his life in a certain way, and with a particular order, to make sure he feels physically and mentally well. And top of the list on this new world order is exercise.
“I’ve got a 24-hour gym just 10 minutes away. I get treatments and do classes to keep myself well, on track, and focused,” Frank says, detailing how he keeps his diet basic with a lot of fish, pasta and fruit. With this exercise, Frank looks for variety, and ways to really benefit his mind.
“At the gym I run, cycle, row, do weight circuits, go for a steam, sauna and massage. I’m doing a little bit of yoga and meditation. I try and calm my mind – I did it throughout my boxing career. Sometimes you’ve got to just shut your eyes. You can overload the computer, so I take it easy when I can.”
From his gated home in Bedfordshire, Frank is able to dip in and out of London, and lead a quieter life away from the hustle and bustle of the city – another way to achieve that quiet and stillness for his mind. But alongside his setting, Frank truly values having a “structure” to his days, noting that “you have to plan and get yourself together”.
In order to stick to a routine, he aims to wake and go to sleep at the same time every day, reading motivational books before he beds down. He also steers clear of the news in the morning and at night to avoid negative headlines.
Additionally, because personal appearances and after-dinner speeches are such a big part of Frank’s work, he keeps socialising outside of this to a minimum.
Let Me Be Frank sheds a light on how small tasks can quickly overwhelm him if he's not feeling on point. For Frank, having to adjust to life without boxing, and the sport’s tight discipline was the clincher. He was unused to doing everyday things for himself, but realising he needed to get help was critical.
For a signed copy of ‘Let Me Be Frank’, published by Mirror Books, visit frankbruno.co.uk