Richard Parks: ‘The pandemic made me question my identity and my value to the world’
Richard Parks is not a man who shies away from a challenge.
The former Welsh rugby international was a combative back row in his playing days with Pontypridd, Leeds and the Dragons.
After his playing career was cut short by injury, he turned his attention to world first expeditions.
In 2011, he set a new world record and became the first person to climb the highest mountain on each of the world's continents, as well as reaching both the South Pole and North Pole, in a calendar year.
In 2020, he set two further world records, as he notched up the most journeys and greatest distance skied solo, unsupported and unassisted in Antarctica, some 2,229 miles.
Then, in March 2020, as was the case for so many of us, lockdown meant Richard’s life ground to a halt.
“I went into lockdown as a world record holding athlete and by 2021, I had de-trained more than I'd ever de-trained in my life,” he told ITV Wales.
“I've really struggled with that, alongside the challenges that lockdown presented us all. That compounded the challenge to my identity, thinking all of a sudden ‘Who am I?’
“I thought to myself, what am I going to do now? What world are we going to emerge into?”
Richard has made a new documentary for ITV Cymru Wales with the help of friends and senior Welsh public figures.
Richard Parks: Climbing out of Lockdown discusses how the pandemic has impacted our relationship with mental health, and it was a personal project that was inspired by Richard’s struggles over the last two years.
After spending much of the first year of the pandemic ploughing his energy into a house renovation, Richard suffered an anxiety attack while live on the radio.
He was appearing on Colin Jackson and Suzanne Packer’s show on Radio Wales in June 2021 when a seemingly simple question delivered a body blow.
“Colin asked me a perfectly simple question along the lines of ‘how would you describe yourself?’ Or ‘what do you do?’
“I just found it really difficult to answer. I felt my world close in. I immediately felt that rush of cortisol, my heart rate started racing and my brain instantly fogged.
“I just kind of mumbled through the next five to 10 minutes, it was terrifying losing control like that.
“I finished the call and I just burst into tears. It was an experience that just completely caught me off guard.”
Reflecting on that moment now, Richard puts it down to the pandemic stripping away many of the coping mechanisms he had built since his last major trauma.
Richard struggled with his mental health when his rugby career was cut short by injury. Moving back home with his parents and contemplating what life had in store for him next, he sank to the depths of depression.
“In hindsight, I think Covid was a trigger to a lot of people's historic, poor mental health,” he continued.
“For me, it triggered the historic period of depression that followed my career-ending injury and also created a perfect storm of circumstances to cause constant feelings ofanxiety.
“I have a toolbox of skills that make me a good athlete, they are why I have been able to break world records.
“But, I didn’t have that toolbox of skills to deal with the world that the pandemic threw usall into and the impact it had on me.”
Richard took the decision to embark on making a documentary, examining the role the pandemic and its successive lockdowns have played in people’s mental health.
During the programme, which airs on Tuesday, March 15, Richard talks to a number of friends and contributors, including his sports psychologist, a primary school headteacher, fellow Welsh international Non Evans, singer and presenter Wynne Evans, and Senedd Member Ken Skates.
“In a way, the programme is my way of managing the situation after I'd let the feelings wash over me,” he reflected.
“After I had found the confidence to even talk about it, everyone who I spoke to actually met my anxiety and my vulnerability with a shared experience.
“It became really clear in that really short period of time, that we're all struggling.
"We've all had struggles through this collective trauma of Covid and are carrying the scars as we emerge.
“For some, it’s struggles that have started during Covid.
“For others, Covid has been that trigger for historic challenges. Both have been my experience. But, it just became really clear to me how much better I felt for talking andin doing so, the unnecessary shame I was internalising for feeling this way.
“Everybody I spoke to while making the programme gave me a perspective that I hadn’t had before and in turn, a little more confidence to move forward.
"But, the biggest lesson I hope people take home from the conversations is that it is okay to not be okay.”
If you are affected by any of the issues in this article or in the programme, places you can visit or call for support are listed on ITV’s mental health resources webpage.
You can watch Richard Parks: Climbing out of Lockdown at 8pm on Tuesday, March 15, on ITV Cymru Wales.