Having pursued athletics professionally, Gemma Dawkins is known to most as ‘the confident sports girl’, but behind closed doors, Gemma was struggling with her own mental health issues. She’s back running and on a mission to help others and make a difference. Gemma shared her journey with Sophie Wilkinson.
Most people will instantly recognise Gemma for her incredible record on the track, but what they won’t realise is just how long she has been running for. “I started running when I was just 6 years old. I have my primary school teacher, Miss Luxton, to thank for getting me involved in athletics! I won a competition at the school sports day, so she encouraged me to join Jersey Spartans. My family have always been into running, my mum competed in boarding school and my granddad competed in the army.”
Declaring herself a tomboy, Gemma explained that she had always been really sporty, taking part in netball, athletics, swimming and hockey, but if she was going to succeed in sports she had to choose just one to focus on. “I was doing too much, I knew I needed to cut down, but I didn’t know how to choose as I enjoyed them all. I had hockey trials for the west of England once. Not because I was good at hockey though, it was because I could run! I realised it was running that made me good at all of these sports so that’s how I chose to stick with the running.”
After Gemma had made the decision to focus on running, she put all her efforts into training, taking part in local races as well as travelling to the UK to compete in various competitions, including the English Schools. In 2007, Gemma travelled to Rhodes for her first Island Games. “I was 16 when I went to Rhodes, it was tough! I got disqualified in the 200m for a false start, but we did win gold in the 4x400m. I remember my coach being so positive, I had never run in the 4x400m, but he knew I could do it. I kind of felt like everybody was thinking “oh my gosh, they’re putting Gemma in this”, so I was determined to do well, I ran a really good time too!
Last year, Gemma took a well needed 6 month break from training after she broke her foot. “I’d never taken a break from running, even in university, I wasn’t competing, but I was still training as I felt like I couldn’t stop. Just before the Island Games last year, the doctor thought I had tendinitis but told me I could still compete, not realising the extent of the damage. Going into the games everybody thought I was going to get the gold in the 800m final, but I won the bronze. I’ve now realised that was still an amazing achievement but at the time I just couldn’t believe it. When I got back to Jersey I went to the hospital as my foot was so swollen and the results showed my foot was actually broken, so I was forced to stop immediately. It was really hard for me as I was the fittest I had ever been, although I wasn’t the strongest I had ever been, so it was actually a blessing in disguise.”
On the outside Gemma was the poster girl for health - she ran, she ate well, she did yoga, but something wasn’t right on the inside, Gemma was suffering with anxiety and depression. “Running has been my big constant, it has been amazing for me, but it has also been negative. I’ve always loved running, but there came a point where I’d stopped enjoying it. I struggled with the transition of being a kid and having no fear at all to suddenly becoming an adult and having the pressures of performance. You become your own worst critic and it took all the enjoyment out of athletics, it was all about the performance and I had forgotten why I fell in love with athletics in the first place, I just wasn’t feeling it.
I had underlying anxiety, low moods and depression but my way of dealing with it was just to carry on, I put a lot of pressure on myself. I got myself into a really dark place, but thankfully I was able to get support. A lot of people are anti-medication, but we do all have a biology, so it does play a part, it's not the answer but it does serve its purpose. Medication helped lift me and gave me the mental clarity I needed so I was able to get to the crux of the problem."
I’m really self-aware, so when I saw a psychologist I was really able to identify the pattern I had got myself in and with that I learned that I had no self-love, I was so hard on myself and everything came from that. Once I was aware of that I knew why. That’s what motivated me to do something different, I was able to think about it in a different way. When you’re a perfectionist you constantly beat yourself up. I took everything to the extreme, I’m all or nothing, and that was my issue, I needed to find a healthy balance and be OK with it.
You never know when mental illness is going to strike and unless you’ve been through it you just can’t even imagine what it’s like, I look back and I realise it just wasn’t me. I now take a holistic approach to mental health and really invest time in myself.”
Gemma and her brother, Ben, set up ‘Born to Run’ to help support other people fuel their mind and their body through running fitness. Born to Run caters for everyone, it’s not about how far or fast you can run, the sessions are designed so people can go at their own pace. “I understand how important running is in terms of helping you to learn more about yourself as well as how amazing it can make you feel. The aim of the group is to get people to realise that running does come naturally to us all and the only reason people think they can’t run is often due to confidence. We designed Born to Run to help people with their confidence, both physically and mentally and to help teach them techniques and get them in tune with their natural running abilities and as a result seeing how far they can go with it. It’s like a support group for runners.”
Gemma is also an assistant psychologist at CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) and is planning on becoming a clinically qualified psychologist in the near future. “It’s my dream job! I am currently supervised by a clinician, but I work one to one with clients and have a say in the services and treatment that would work well for the younger people. It’s very eye opening, there are some kids that are coming through that I just look at and think ‘Oh my gosh, that was me’. They are so hard on themselves and it’s that internal critic that is putting them in that dark place. I think because I have been through it myself, I have a great connection with the kids and I can see such improvements in them.”
Gemma explains that a lot of health coaches talk about mental health and mindset as if they are one, but you can only really work with the mindset once you’ve been able to work with the mental illness. “Mental health is so different to mindset. When you are suffering with depression, every thought you have is negative and you can’t just change that. Telling someone who is suffering with depression to ‘just be positive’ or ‘just snap out of it’ will not help at all. Mindset helps keep you well, it doesn’t make you better. People need to realise that depression is an illness, nothing you say like that will help. These kids think that they must be positive all the time, but because they are suffering with depression, they beat themselves up further because they’re struggling to be positive – it creates a vicious cycle. A lot of people in the health industry preach about mindset and positive thoughts and it creates this ‘happiness trap’. It’s the same with social media, you only see the positives and it can make people feel awful about themselves and wonder why their life isn’t like that.
Social media had a massive effect on me. I was using it as a coping mechanism, so I took a 5 week break off to reassess my relationship with it. I started researching the effects of social media and found studies that show how social media plays into our own personal reward system, it’s the same as addiction. You get that rush every time you get likes and comments and it can either have a really good affect or you just end up comparing yourself to everyone and it really damages you.”
Today, Gemma looks great, and she says she is feeling better than ever too. “I feel amazing. I would say I’m recovered, but I won’t say I won’t ever suffer with mental illness again. Right now, I think I am the definition of happy, I love what I’m doing, and I have great friends and family. My granddad always told me to be a good listener, and I think I am now, I have learned to accept myself and I’m happy being perfectly flawed. I’m only 26 but I feel like I have a pretty good tool box, I have everything I need to be able to deal with the shit life throws my way.”
PICTURES TAKEN AT THE RADISSON BLU BY MARK STEPHENSON
HAIR: J ROULSON, AVEDA BLOW DRY BAR AT VOISINS | MAKEUP: JESSICA SHAW, BENEFIT AT DE GRUCHY