ITV News Sports Editor Steve Scott reports on the online abuse that drove Olympic speed skater Elise Christie to self-harm
It is remarkable that triple Olympic speed skater Elise Christie can find a smile at all given what life has thrown at her. But sitting opposite her for an hour or so there is no shortage of them, despite most of our conversation exploring her darkest and most desperate moments, from the abuse and online death threats she faced, to the self-harming which so nearly led to her taking her own life.
As the title of her soon to be published biography Resilience suggests, she is hard to break, although she admits it is still a daily struggle to stay that way.
"There are many days I sit there and think I'm weak"
“On many days I'll still sit there and think I'm weak, and I shouldn't have let things affect me the way they did. I try to be stronger and stronger every day. The trauma, it creates an ongoing problem forever, but that doesn't mean it has to be an overbearing problem.”
Christie was self-harming as recently as April, less than 10 months before the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. As she fights to keep her demons at bay, it's her plan to compete at the these Games a risk worth taking, especially since it was the previous Games in Korea four years ago that were the catalyst to her being rushed to hospital with a life-threatening gash in her wrist.
"It would look like I'd given up and the negative side of mental health had finished me" - Elise Christie on why she has decided to compete at Beijing 2022 despite her and her team's fears
“It’s a big fear that’s been mine, and also within the group that look after me. They’ve asked, especially after what happened in April, 'is this the right idea? Should we do this? If it goes wrong, are you going to be OK out there?' I would lie if it didn’t scare me, and I didn’t worry. I think for me that if I didn’t go, it would look like I’d given up and I’d let the negative side of mental health finish me.”
Christie is fuelled by a desire to help others, also consumed with their own challenges, and to show them there is a journey away from the depths of despair.
“Whether I win a medal or not, after what happened, I hit the lowest point, I nearly died and I still came back and did it because that shows that people can do it.”
Christie was already a European champion when she went to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The Games were nothing short of disastrous for her as she was disqualified in every one of her three events: twice for crashing into an opponent and the other time for not finishing her race according to the rules.
Following the crashes, she received torrents of abuse and threats of violence on social media from supporters of the skaters she’d taken out. Christie later revealed those threats gave her sleepless nights and serious concerns, however irrational, that there were people out there who genuinely wanted to kill her.
Her next Olympic nightmare followed four years later and like Sochi, the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games ended in heartbreak and more abuse. She says those who targeted her had a devastating impact.
"I felt like nothing" - Elise Christie on the impact of social media abuse on her mental health
“This is everything I have worked for, this is the only thing I have ever done with my life, the only thing that ever made me feel I had a worth, and you’ve taken that away from me. And I just felt like nothing, and I didn’t understand how people could be so horrible.”
At the time she says she also felt under huge pressure because as a world champion and Team GB’s star turn who was expected to make the podium, she worried the speed skating programme would have its budget cut if she failed - a tragic and ultimately dangerous by-product of the “money for medals” mantra that dominated all British Olympic sport at the time.
“I was basically trying to fund an entire programme, all the pressure was put on me to get these medals and keep the programme funded.”
But again, she failed to win a medal after falling twice and being disqualified in her third event.
That experience accelerated Christie’s spiral into her darkest place. What began as turning up late for training, to spending money she didn’t have on holidays and other items, ended in her self-harming; in Christie’s own words she had lost control.
"I had so much pain inside of me that I'd held onto for so long"
“I just let everything overbear me and I got to the point where I'd had so much pain inside of me that I'd held in for so long that I couldn't, I just didn't want to feel like that anymore.”
It was a perfect storm that led to Christie’s mental health decline, but the online abuse was a significant contributor. From her experiences after Sochi, right up until today, she does not believe social media platforms have done enough to protect her.
“They could filter it for sure and then they could send out warnings to people that if you carry on behaving like that, and then ban them. They (Facebook) banned me within 24 hours of posting a self-harm image. So, they can do this stuff and they don’t because they know it grows the popularity."
The image she’s referring to which she intended to promote suicide awareness shows some of the many scars on her arms.
“I hate them, and if I post about them, people were like, you should be so proud of them. I hate them. When things have been bad, since April when I've got a bit bad, I've looked and gone, I don't want more of these, they're bad enough.”
"I got to the point where I basically lost control of myself," Elise Christie opens up in an interview with ITV News about her mental health struggles
She has recently had a tattoo inked on one of her wrists to help disguise some of her scarring. It is inspired by a suicide charity logo and reminds her that she doesn’t deal with the difficult times by cutting herself anymore.
A Facebook spokesperson said: “We take the matter of online abuse seriously.
"In addition to removing comments and accounts which break our rules, we have introduced a number of safety features including Comment Filters and Message Controls which mean no one has to see this type of abuse.
“Self-harm is a complex issue and we work with experts to develop policies that strike a balance to help ensure we protect vulnerable people while allowing others to express themselves and seek support.
"That’s why we allow people to discuss self-harm, including posting images of healed scars but we don’t allow people to encourage or promote self harm, or share graphic images of cuts.”
While to some the concept of self-harm is difficult to understand, Christie believes to athletes it is less shocking.
"It's a lot more common than people realise" - Elise Christie says self-harm among athletes is not spoken about
“I think it's a lot more of a common problem than people realise. I know personally, at least three or four people that have done it or do it. It’s a difficult one to talk about because you need to seem strong to your opponents. A lot of athletes end up with self-harm rather than alcohol and drug abuse because we wouldn't be able to train if you were drinking all the time, you wouldn't be able to be on drugs because you’d get banned.”
Christie has been inspired by Simone Biles’ recent decision to step back from competing in the majority of her events in Tokyo. She admits she probably should have done the same in South Korea.
“I can't believe how brave it was as one of the most famous Olympians to just stand down and do what's right for you as a human being.”
Elise Christie has decided to go to her fourth Olympic Games because she believes it is the right thing for her as a human being. Of course, there is jeopardy - it could produce a Hollywood style ending to her career or it may go the way of her previous experiences.
If it’s the latter you can only hope she flashes one of those warm Christie smiles when reflecting on how cruel fate has been to her yet again.
Where can you get help if you are struggling?
If you have an emergency and a life is in danger contact the emergency services on 999.
The NHS and several charities across the UK offer various resources and helplines for people who need help and for people who think someone they care about needs support.
Mind has a helpline on 0300 123 3393.
The Samaritans, which helps people who feel suicidal, can be contacted on 116 123.
YoungMinds, who support young people with mental health issues, can be contacted on 0808 802 5544.
The NHS has a resource page offering various routes to support here.