HK’s fitness pioneer Alex de Fina is opening up about his own struggles with depression in the hopes of changing how men’s mental health is perceived. He’s driving home why mental illness isn’t weakness.
Depression. Bankruptcy. Breakdown. Failure. These are the harsh truths of being an entrepreneur when you consider total business collapse in the startup scene is the overwhelming norm. At the age of 21, serial fitness entrepreneur Alex de Fina hit his first rock bottom as his professional and personal life crumbled around him. Suicide became the only option he believed he had. Over a decade later, he’s become a major driving force in the Asia-Pacific fitness industry, a market valued at USD 16.8 billion by Deloitte, as the founder of Asia’s female fitness bootcamp Bikini Fit and Hong Kong’s intensive female training gym Pherform. He’s coming clean about the damaging attitudes that stop men from speaking up when they’re struggling – and what desperately needs to change. “When you look at the suicide rates for men, it’s a lot of the top executives, the top performing athletes. We don’t have an opportunity for men to raise their hand and say I’m hurting because we all classify that person as being weak,” Alex explains. “It’s a massive problem and I think it’s going to take a very, very long time before we find a solution.”
Growing up in Brisbane, Australia, Alex has always nursed an entrepreneurial flair. “I’ve worked in real estate, had an advertising company when I was too young to know what I was doing, and worked 1001 terrible jobs,” he laughs. Having built three hugely successful enterprises in Australia and Hong Kong from scratch, including Asia’s top bootcamp Bikini Fit and Hong Kong’s specialist female-only gym Pherform, Alex has made quite a name for himself in the fitness industry in Hong Kong and Australia. Among his other achievements, he’s pioneered a new training programme for women – Female Specific Training – that optimises the way women train, accounting for differences between male and female anatomy. He’s been twice named Hong Kong’s best trainer and helped thousands live healthier lives along the way. But, behind the sheen of success, things haven’t always been as rosy. The author of ‘A Meathead’s Guide to Depression Management by Alex de Fina,’ he’s come face to face with complete business failure, depression, bankruptcy, relationship breakdowns and utter physical and mental exhaustion – and built himself from the ground up twice over.
The situation could not be more critical. Suicide is the leading cause of death for men aged under 45, the BBC reports in 2019 – a statistic Alex believes is fueled by unrealistic expectations of what it means to ‘be a man.’ “For a very long time, men have been taught to ‘man up’ and get shit done. If you look at people who are top of the leaderboard, the guy who just comes in and gets stuff done is also the person who’s literally dealing with nothing but problems 24/7,” he explains. “When your whole character is built up to be that person who gets things done and isn’t affected by emotions, that’s completely unrealistic.”
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Drawing from his personal experiences, Alex relates, “Any time I’ve talked about my personal challenges with mental health, the first people to reach out to me privately are the CTOs, the guys at the top of business, whom the outside world would never assume might be struggling. If you’re the CEO of a big multinational, you can’t walk into the office and say, you know what? I’m just lost in life right now.”
Having spoken up about his own trials with the ‘black dog’ of depression, he’s faced damaging misconceptions about what his experiences with mental illness mean – a result of the very real stigma that still persists. “I had people I know very well ask, ‘How are you doing?’ And I’d say, ‘Good.’ And they’d ask, ‘But how are you really going? How’s your mental health?’ And now you feel like you’re fundamentally broken for the rest of your life.” When we live in a society where admitting you’re struggling somehow compromises your character, it’s not difficult to see why men are unwilling to reach out for support. “I think a lot of men reach out privately, but they’d never do so publicly because they’re terrified that they’re going to lose their job,” says Alex. “They think they’re going to lose that profile they’ve created and never be taken seriously again.”
For Alex, fitness became a means of coping with his internal demons – a discovery which he’s worked hard to share with others through the course of his professional fitness career as both a trainer and fitness consultant. “It’s a really effective, really reliable bandaid,” he says. “It’s not to replace cognitive behavioural therapy or mental therapy, but if you’re putting your body into a state of pain and suffering, at least for that period of time, you’re not focused on the trauma or your anxiety about the future.” The way he sees it, fitness, unlike other areas of life like career progressions or romantic relationships, offers a fairly immediate feedback loop which teaches you to push through adversity to achieve a result that you’ve worked towards. “Your legs are on fire. You’re struggling. Everything in your body’s saying stop, stop, stop – and you know what? 5 more reps. You push through that and you can give yourself that emotional pat on the back. You’re doing this on a daily basis, overcoming hardship and building confidence and character in yourself, which tends to transcend the gym.”
Looking further forward into the broader societal changes that need to happen, Alex feels it is imperative to have more men openly promoting men’s mental health. “It’s terrifying and I don’t like the fact that some people look at me and say, ‘This guy’s struggled with depression or addiction, abuse or trauma. But there isn’t a strong trend of other males that look and sound like you putting their hand up and saying, ‘Hey, I dealt with this at times and this is what got me through.’” Difficult though it is, Alex is openly sharing his personal story in the hope of paving the way for others to speak up and normalise the very real emotional difficulties that men face, too.
If you feel like you’ve been struggling with depression, anxiety or your mental health, we encourage you to reach out to loved ones, talk to a GP, or contact one of your local support lines.