Dennis Ombachi: Kenyan Olympic sevens player coping with bipolar disorder

Dennis Ombachi (right) in action for Kenya Sevens
Dennis Ombachi (right) played for Kenya at the Rugby World Cup Sevens and the Olympic Games

For Dennis Ombachi, confiding in his coach helped him take his first steps towards getting treatment for his mental health issues.

The Kenya rugby sevens international, who played at the 2016 Olympics, is taking a break from top-level sport after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which can cause extreme mood swings.

During Mental Health Awareness Week, Ombachi is keen to let others in a similar situation know that they are not alone.

“Lots of us go through this, and not many of us are willing to seek help,” the 31-year-old told BBC Sport Africa.

“So for me, it’s just to tell them it’s treatable. It’s something you can live with and it doesn’t change your quality of life whatsoever.”

As well as being part of the sport’s debut at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Ombachi also played for Kenya at the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens and the Commonwealth Games in 2014.

Sevens is a fast-paced and energetic sport but, throughout his career, Ombachi’s mood would suddenly dip and he would find himself losing interest in training, craving solitude or crying in the shower after matches.

Eventually he told his national team coach Innocent Simiyu about his struggles before the World Cup Sevens in 2018.

“I had been going through the issues since my latter days in high school and my early sporting career,” Ombachi said.

“When I was selected to go play, I think it was against Australia and Singapore, I didn’t show up for my flight.

“That’s when the coach pulled me aside. I told him what I’ve been going through over a couple of years, what I’m feeling and I’m really thankful the coach really understood.

“He told me to go back home seek some help. I just picked the closest friend because I hadn’t even talked to my family or any close person around me about it.”

Dennis Ombachi in action for Kenya Sevens
Ombachi says his condition affected his relationships with family and friends

However, his condition grew so bad that he found himself at his lowest ebb.

One day, Ombachi tried to take his own life but was found in time by his three sisters.

After that attempt he was diagnosed as bipolar in 2018, and wishes he could have sought help earlier.

“It was actually starting to affect my personal life, my friendship with the mother of my kids and everything,” he said.

“My diagnosis came a bit late on in my late 20s. It was still the prime of my career but, especially when I was hospitalised, when I look back I was like ‘I’ve managed to be where I am despite my condition’. But then it was actually escalating.

“I was diagnosed first with depression, which turned out to be a misdiagnosis and then I was admitted later on for around two weeks in a psychiatric institution. And that’s where my psychiatrist diagnosed me with bipolar and I think that’s where my journey started.

“This is actually something I wish I could have been able to manage when I was in my early 20s. I think my life would have taken a different path because lots of things stopped due to my mental issues.”

Going public

Dennis Ombachi in action for Kenya Sevens
Ombachi hopes to break the stigma about mental health after sharing information about his diagnosis

Ombachi announced he was bipolar in a social media thread a year ago and has stepped away from what he describes as the “hustle and bustle” of the rugby sevens circuit.

“Since my diagnosis it’s been a period of ups and downs – relapses here and there and in and out of hospital,” he said.

“But I think by last year I was fully in control of my disorder more consistently.

“My career was almost coming to an end, so I just needed to sort of detach myself from sports because it’s quite demanding.

“You’re expected to perform at your level best no matter the situation, you have to maintain a certain physique of your body. So there are lots of stresses inside and outside the sports organisation, like life issues.

“Coming out, I told myself if I could help a single person to also come out and break the stigma and get help I think we’ll be in a far better place. It’s all about breaking the stigma.”

Ombachi now hopes to return to high-level rugby.

“For me taking a break was just to have a grasp of my mental health, see how it’s taking it and then also try and set up myself outside life in sports and see how it goes. So far so good,” he said.

“In the near future, I really look forward to making a comeback in sports now that I’m a bit comfortable with my situation.”

Coping through cooking

Ombachi has discovered that one way of dealing with his condition is to display his self-taught cooking skills to his 170,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram.

“My coping mechanism was the internet, and it is where I developed my passion for cooking,” he said.

“Travelling to all these countries you get to eat different foods. And in my career I’ve been quite unfortunate to be involved in so many injuries – I’ve been through four or five major surgeries.

“And actually during the recovery period is usually when my mental state usually dips, so I just try to teach myself how to cook through the internet.

“For me it was cooking and woodwork. And those are some of my hobbies that used to see me through my sort of depressive patterns. So I found a way of making the most out of the unfortunate situation.”