Climbing out of lockdown: How the pandemic has impacted our mental health

Richard Parks spoke with friends across Wales for a new documentary

Inspired by his own struggles during the pandemic, former Welsh rugby international and polar explorer Richard Parks has met with people across Wales to see what lessons lockdowns and isolation can teach us.

After struggling with his mental health following an injury that cut short his international career, Richard turned his attention to world first expeditions.

That work included him becoming the first person to climb the highest mountain on each continent plus reaching the South and North Pole in a single calendar year.

As part of hour-long programme Richard Parks: Climbing out of Lockdown, which airs on Tuesday night at 8pm, Richard spoke to five people from five different walks of life.

Travelling across Wales, he found different approaches to dealing with struggles over the last year, but one thing was a constant: everybody has struggled in some way.

Talking to ITV Cymru Wales, Richard said: “Each of my conversations gave me a different perspective that I hadn’t had before.”

‘None of us are immune’

Cardiff Metropolitan University's Dr Mikel Mellick has worked with Richard on his expeditions

Sports psychologist and Cardiff Metropolitan University lecturer, Dr Mikel Mellick has previously worked with Richard on a number of projects and expeditions.

Reflecting on Richard’s personal darkest moment during the second lockdown, Dr Mellick said personal struggles through an unprecedented time are were to be expected.

“The whole world has seen this is a pretty challenging period, and low mood anxiety and depression has increased for a lot of people,” he said. 

“I wonder if it’s about this sense of feeling trapped. Not only physically, but it’s also about being trapped in your own thoughts. 

“When we are faced with a major event, or a change event, like an injury that forces you to retire from sport, like Covid, it’s not surprising that is when we are at our most vulnerable.

“I’m a psychologist, I should know better, but I’ve struggled with my mental illness this time as well. None of us are immune to the challenges of this virus.

“For me, I’m going day-by-day. Today, the new normal looks like this. If I cry, that’s okay. It’s going to be different for each of us.”

‘If I didn’t sort myself out, I could have died'

Non Evans has represented Wales in four different sports, but retirement brought on depression

Richard is not the only Welsh sportsperson who has been struggling over the last two years.

Non Evans has competed internationally for Wales in rugby, judo, weightlifting and freestyle wrestling.

After winning the last of her 87 caps for Wales in 2010, she realised she was struggling with depression and anxiety.

For Non, lockdown in 2020 became a watershed moment where those challenges returned.

"Lockdown happened, and I really struggled”, she told Richard.

“Injury ended my career and that’s probably when my depression and anxiety started.

“Suddenly, lockdown happens, and I am back to square one. I hit an all-time low and I did start drinking.

“It would go from a glass of wine to a bottle of wine. In the end, I was drinking to feel normal, rather than drinking to not feel normal. That was the most frightening thing and I never want to go back there again.”

At her lowest, Non was arrested in Mumbles, leading to her friend telling her she feared her actions would result in her dying.

“She said to me, ‘Non, the next time I see you you’ll be in a box".

“Everybody has got demons. I used to have people around me constantly. When that is taken away from you, which happened in the lockdown, that loneliness is hard.

“Somebody said to me, ‘nobody can help yourself except you’. When I got that mindset, I did it. It’s been a hard year but I’ve rebuilt my life. For the first time since I retired from sport, I’m looking forward to life.”

‘For the first time in my life I have suffered with anxiety’

Helen Borley is the headteacher of Mount Stuart Primary School in Butetown, Cardiff

As well as personal struggles, the responsibility for others has always been a major driving force behind many people’s anxieties. 

As schools closed, day jobs were juggled with home schooling. The impact of the pandemic on children was a fear for parents everywhere.

Helen Borley is the headteacher of Mount Stuart Primary School in the Butetown area of Cardiff, a school that Richard has close ties with.

“One of the hardest things was locking down the school in March 2020,” she said. 

“There was a moment when everybody had gone. I just had a moment in the school on my own. I set the alarm. I shut the gate. I clicked that padlock and I just thought ‘what’s going to happen to my family? What’s going to happen to these families?’

“That was my panic moment. I sat in the car, and I couldn’t move, and I just had to have a good cry. 

“For the first time in my life I have suffered with anxiety. It is hard, but you just have to keep going.”

Helen says she can see the impact the pandemic has had on children, but added it is vital we do not lose sight of the successes and joyful moments.

“I can see the impact it has had on the youngest children. I think what the youngest children have missed is those social relationships. They are shy. Their language and physical development has been delayed.

“Like all schools, we did what we could. There have been hugely joyous moments. I remember speaking to one family and they told me they had taught their little boy to make pasta. That’s fabulous, he can always feed himself. It wasn’t formal maths or literacy but children learnt all sorts of other stuff that we must value.

“I’m a true believer that children are resilient. They live in the moment. They do today, they go home, and then they do the next day. In the long term, they’ll be fine.”

‘There’s no shame in not feeling okay’

Ken Skates took the decision to stand down from his position in the Welsh Government in 2021

Those holding key positions in public and political office have also not escaped the impact the pandemic has had on completely flipping life on its head.

Ken Skates was the Welsh Government’s economy minister through the first year of the pandemic, but after being re-elected as the Senedd Member for Clwyd South, he took the decision to stand down from his position in Mark Drakeford’s cabinet.

He told Richard: “It [stepping down as economy minister] was really tough, but it was something that I knew was right.”

Despite now being in a better place than he has been, Ken is under no illusions as to how difficult the last two years have been. 

“This has been a very long journey through an incredibly tough storm. For much of it, we thought we were coming out of that storm, only to be confronted with a tougher episode,” he continued. 

“There’s no shame in admitting you’re not feeling okay. The key thing is recognising it and wanting to do something about it.

“Going back to when I was at my depths with generalised anxiety disorder, which was forcing me to close the world in on myself; you don’t notice it at the time but you are becoming increasingly self critical.

“To get to the point where you recognise that [something is wrong], is so important. 

“Covid for a huge number of people has actually been a bit of a mirror. It’s not Covid that has caused people to struggle with mental health. Covid has been a trigger.”

‘My depression is my strength’

Opera singer and radio presenter Wynne Evans regularly speaks openly about his personal struggles with his mental health

Opera singer, actor and radio presenter Wynne Evans has also spoken openly about his struggles with mental health that have led him to contemplate taking his own life. 

For much of the second lockdown in winter 2020, Wynne admits he spent some nights crying because of loneliness.

However, he believes he has learnt a key lesson during the pandemic that he now carries with him in everyday life.

“I do my show every day, I am company to people for three hours, my job is to lift their spirits. 

“I know what it is like to be depressed, so that is my strength, I have embraced my depression.

“Men write to me a lot, and they wouldn’t be writing to me if they didn’t have depression and anxiety, I wouldn’t be having this connection with them.”

Not everybody has shared the same experiences throughout the pandemic, just as not everybody has the same relationship with their mental health. 

One thing that is a given is that nobody is immune to encountering their own personal struggles. It is perfectly okay to not be okay.

  • If you are affected by any of the issues in this article or in the programme, a list of places you can contact for support is 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.