Olympic medalist Nile Wilson suffered suicidal thoughts after serious injury

Eating disorders ‘risen considerably’ during the pandemic, says Priory psychiatrist

  • Nile Wilson won bronze in Rio Olympics and developed a huge social media following
  • He suffered a neck injury and subsequent complications in 2019
  • Wilson opens up about his struggles with mental health on a Priory Group podcast
  • On the podcast, he recalls the struggles he had explaining how he felt to his family

Nile Wilson, the Olympic medalist who this year announced his retirement from gymnastics at the age of just 24, has spoken of “having thoughts of suicide” in the aftermath of a neck injury in 2019. He was the first Briton to win an Olympic medal on the horizontal bar, winning bronze at the Rio games, and has subsequently become a social media sensation, with his YouTube channel gaining 1.44 million subscribers.

Speaking on the Priory Group podcast ‘Sporting Highs and Lows’, Wilson observes; “Every single Olympian will feel depressed and have a come-down after it.” “You can’t ever match the euphoria of that event”, he says, and that realisation contributed to the mental health difficulties he was to experience.

Wilson describes how his mental health “deteriorated” a serious neck injury left him needing surgery in 2019; “I just kept drinking pretty much for two weeks straight until I had the surgery”, he said. He explains this was due to “the amount of pain I was in”.

He continued to suffer complications after the surgery, which prevented him from returning to gymnastics. This loss took a “horrendous” toll on his mental health. He compares the effect that being prevented from returning to sport had on him, to the loss of agency many people have felt during the pandemic, saying; “Everyone has to stop what they’re doing, you physically cannot do what you want to do because of this situation.”

Looking back at the time after the injury, Wilson said; “I felt months of anxiety and I couldn’t understand why.” He describes “a feeling of losing your purpose” when he could no longer compete, and ultimately “having thoughts of suicide”. Wilson came up with “extreme ways of coping”, often involving “gambling and alcohol”, which took a toll on his relationship with his family, who struggled to cope with the change.

“My mum and dad said ‘you’re an idiot, stop doing this’” he remembered, explaining that their reaction was perfectly understandable because they just “wanted Nile back”. In common with many people who suffer from mental health issues, he found communicating what he was experiencing to people around him very difficult because they “can’t see that pain”.

Wilson says that the right way to deal with these issues is to learn that you are not defined by external factors, be they Olympic medals, money, or fame. He says the important thing for him is thinking about the sort of person he wants to be, “what type of friend, what type of boyfriend, what type of son”. It was working on these questions that helped him get to a place where he felt he could retire from the sport. He thinks that without the support he had, he would have ended up having a similar crisis whenever he retired, and warns that not many athletes have the support they need to help them understand these issues.



“Changing a difficult situation isn't always possible. So, accept what you cannot change and focus on the things you do have control over - such as regularly connecting with colleagues over video conferencing or online meetings.

Use music

“Put on headphones to listen to music can have many benefits, such as helping you relax and focus on something away from work and the outside world. Turn off rolling news and social media platforms such as Twitter, and just check in once a day. Stretch your legs and take a walk, even just to the garden, the kitchen or another room in your house before returning to your desk. Moving around and changing your environment, even slightly, can clear your mind and re-energise you.”

Coping with panic

Dr Donna Grant, consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Chelmsford, offers some tips to help cope with panic at this time:

“Observe your thoughts and tell yourself that your mind is reacting to these thoughts and anxiety. These feelings are

normal - it's just the body's alarm system doing its job when it doesn't need to.

“Learn to control your breathing. People often hyperventilate during a panic attack. This means taking deeper breaths than normal which results in you feeling short of breath, causing a feeling of dizziness, disorientation and chest pains. By learning to slow your breathing down, you can help prevent the uncomfortable physical symptoms and stop the panic cycle. Try to get a slower and more stable breathing rhythm by breathing in for three seconds, holding your breath for two seconds, and then breathing out for three seconds. As you breathe, ensure that your stomach expands as you take each breath as this helps to ensure the breathing isn't shallow, which can add to the problem.

Learn to use positive coping statements

“When you are feeling anxious and panicky it can be helpful to have 'coping statements' which can be used to remind you that panic is not dangerous and isn't harmful.

Such statements could be:

- Panic is simply high levels of anxiety

- By remembering these symptoms are nothing more than anxiety, I can prevent further symptoms occurring

- My anxiety and panic will pass naturally given time. It doesn't last forever

Reminding yourself of these facts can help to prevent further panic cycles happening.

Keep a journal

Pamela Roberts, a Priory psychotherapist based at Priory’s Woking Hospital, adds that for those who might be self-isolating: “Ensure you are working in a well-ventilated room and following basic self-care, so healthy eating, sleep, lots of hydration, and try to keep to a routine. Set up a ‘buddy group’ with family or friends and regularly check in online or with Facetime.

“If you feel low, journaling can be a helpful way to unload emotions. Go with the flow. Tell yourself ‘what I am doing is enough’. Be good to yourself. If you have slept badly, accept you'll be in a low, more anxious mood. Your energy will be low. Try and relax and focus on positive things knowing that every effort is being made globally to bring this situation to a close, but it will take time. Being able to relax will help you through. When you're tense you tend to dwell on things and make them worse. If you are able, get into your garden and get daily doses of sunshine. Maybe look at some free online courses offered by the Open University. The mental health charity Mind has some very useful advice on self-isolating and your mental health. For support with grief, anxiety, or mental wellbeing, you can call or text an organisation like the Samaritans, or you can access therapy online with a trained therapist.”


Priory expert Steve Clarke, a psychotherapist and hospital director at the Priory¹s Life Works Hospital in Woking, Surrey, explains EMT: ‘Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) - Repetitive finger tapping can sometimes help to release negative emotions such as anxiety. It has been called a psychological version of acupuncture in that it involves making contact with a number of acupuncture points. The specific points to tap are the end-points of the major meridians (meridians are believed to be channels of subtle energy which flow through our body). So, whilst focusing on your negative emotion you tap on a meridian point (collarbone, under the arm and top of the head ­ try to avoid the face at these times) three to seven times, repeating your negative thought in your head. After each emotion, take a deep breath and exhale. Continue this until you feel calmer and relieved. When you feel more relieved, repeat the technique whilst you tap through a positive round, repeating more uplifting phrases.”


Dr Bijlani says: “Make time for a nourishing lunch with adequate hydration. Food and drink can greatly affect your physical and mental health. Stop working at the usual time you would if you had travelled to your office and then try and fit in some social calls to friends or family before you prepare your evening meal. Avoid drinking too much alcohol or eating unhealthy foods out of boredom. Try and keep to boundaries such as only drinking alcoholic beverages in limited quantities at the weekend. Having to spend endless time each day in our homes with others under the lockdown situation is certainly going to affect our relationships with them, regardless of whether they are our loved family members or not. Emotions can be “infectious” and if those around us aren’t able to keep calm and cope well, we could end up getting stressed, fed up, irritable or low ourselves. It’s important for each of us, where we can, to take responsibility for our own health so that we can help keep up a reasonable level of optimism and engender a healthy environment in our homes which we share with others. Try and do some things together, such as sharing the preparation and eating of meals and daily walks together while also maintaining respectful boundaries and giving each other space apart for private time alone. Work as a healthy community. Try and be sensitive, flexible and forgiving without losing your own sense of self or identity. The best way to keep your mood swings under control is to look after yourself by keeping to your usual routine of sleep, diet, exercise and other activities. If you have been prescribed medication for your mental health, then take it as advised.”



Contact: [email protected]


About Priory and MEDIAN

Priory is the UK’s leading independent provider of mental health services. We treat more than 70 conditions, including depression, anxiety, addictions and eating disorders, as well as children’s mental health, across our nationwide network of sites. We also support autistic adults and adults with a learning disability, Prader-Willi Syndrome and brain injuries, as well as older people, within our specialist residential care and supported living facilities – helping as many people as possible to live their lives.

Priory is part of the MEDIAN Group, one of Europe’s leading providers of high quality mental health and rehabilitation services. The MEDIAN Group comprises 290 facilities with 5,000 beds caring for 28,000 people in the UK, 120 facilities with 20,000 beds caring for around 250,000 patients in Germany, and 15 facilities with 2,000 beds caring for 13,000 people in Spain, with more than 29,000 employees overall.

Need more information?

Email the press office at: [email protected]