Victoria Pendleton

Week 275 (19 - 25 January 2019)


Sport is commonly accepted as an important tool in the maintenance and improvement of one’s mental wellbeing. The benefits of leading an active lifestyle are well-documented: improved mood, an enhanced sleep quality and a reduced chance of depression to name but a few.

Unfortunately, the sports industry is by no means immune to the ills of mental health. In fact, the exposure to the spotlight - and the pressure that comes with it - can exacerbate or even induce mental health problems amongst athletes.

The number of high-profile sportspeople who have spoken about their personal experience with mental health difficulties in recent years is both encouraging and alarming at the same time. Encouraging, because athletes are clearly beginning to feel they have enough support to open up and because their stories can prove pivotal in helping fans who share similar difficulties. But alarming, because the sports industry is clearly not doing enough to help athletes combat their problems.

A particularly distressing example surfaced this week. British Olympic cycling champion Victoria Pendleton, adored by British fans for her heroics at London 2012, revealed she had been on the verge of suicide last summer. In a hard-hitting interview in the Daily Telegraph, Pendleton spoke with great courage and honesty about her ordeal.

Pendleton notes she has now “turned a corner” but acknowledged the risk of de-railing her recovery by opening up to the world about her problems. Her reason for doing so? She wants to use her experiences and her platform to help others fighting similar battles. The selflessness and sincerity of her message is an example of what athlete communications should be founded on.

Pendleton’s difficulties were triggered last April when she took part in a charity climb up Mount Everest for a three-part CNN documentary. However, the climb ended when Pendleton showed signs of hypoxia (a lack of oxygen) at the expedition's second camp. Oxygen deprivation can often trigger depression, which Pendleton spoke about at the time: “It’s really put me through the wringer, and that has been harder than any disappointment about not making it up to the summit. It’s like I’ve taken a real battering. I’ve never felt so overwhelmed with illness.”

Despite the doctors’ best efforts, the medication did not help Pendleton. “Everything I took made me feel less like myself,” she explained. “There were mornings I woke up and I thought 'I don't want to see the end of the day'.” Pendleton’s mental health deteriorated over the coming months, reaching the point where she “had accumulated 1½ times the dose of drugs” to kill herself.

Almost at the point of no return, Pendleton rang a man called Steve Peters, who had been her psychiatrist at British Cycling. Thankfully, Peters answered the phone and managed to keep her on the line long enough to contact Pendleton’s twin, who rushed over to her house and confiscated the pills. A terribly difficult and traumatic time for Pendleton and her loved ones ensued over the next few months.

Rather fittingly, it was sport that sparked Pendleton’s recovery. She went to Costa Rica in August, where she surfed almost every day. In her interview this week, Pendleton acknowledges the importance of sport in aiding recovery: “Taking yourself outside your comfort zone could play a massive part in getting yourself back on track. There are other ways [than drugs] of getting yourself out of a very uncomfortable, very dark place. By doing something physical, something outdoors. Something challenging. Taking risks.”

It is encouraging to see that sport as an industry recognises it needs to do more and appears to now be adopting more of a hands-on approach to dealing with mental health. There are more active charities in this area than ever before and international governing bodies are increasingly developing initiatives to help improve their athletes’ mental wellbeing.

As sport continues to fight this important battle, the bravery of figures like Pendleton to speak openly about personal experience is a vital component of overcoming a wider societal issue. Her altruistic act is an example to us all and makes Victoria Pendleton the JTA Communicator of the Week.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons