Michael Phelps opens up about his mental health struggles
Michael Phelps was in Chicago last week, but the topic of conversation was far from the swimming pool and his 28 Olympic medals. Instead, the swimming sensation was sharing a more personal story, that of his mental health and experience with depression.
He appeared at the fourth annual mental health conference of the Kennedy Forum, a behavioral health advocacy group.
The 20-minute discussion focused on his mental health struggle, touching on his experiences with issues such as anxiety, depression and even contemplating suicide.
Political strategist David Axelrod interviewed the star, and when asked what it takes to become a champion, the 32-year-old explained, “I think that part is pretty easy – it’s hard work, dedication, not giving up.”
But he went on to describe how his hunger for more, to push himself to the extreme, had a price.
“Really, after every Olympics, I think I fell into a major state of depression,” he said when asked when his health issues began. “I would say ’04 was probably the first depression spell I went through.”
But his toughest run came after the 2012 Olympics. Phelps told the audience he didn’t want to be in the sport anymore and didn’t want to be alive after those Summer Games.
At that time, the record setter would sit alone in his room for three to five days at a time without food and sleep. That was the turning point when he realized he needed help.
“His depression came after the Olympics,” says Dr. Michael Athans, clinical psychologist and Chief of the Division of Psychology and Psychiatry at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill.
“I can imagine that he was thinking, ‘Is that it? Is that all there is? I did it. Now what?’”
“I remember going to treatment my very first day. I was shaking, shaking because I was nervous about the change that was coming up,” Phelps told the audience at the conference. “I needed to figure out what was going on.”
Today, Phelps is able to talk about his feelings and what is going on. He explained that he understands “it’s OK to not be OK.”
With more than 300 million people worldwide suffering from depression, according to data from the World Health Organization, experts hope Phelps’ open discussion will help reach others dealing with similar issues.
“Sadly, even in 2018, some people still feel there is a stigma attached to talking about one’s feelings of depression, anxiety, stress, etc,” says Dr. Athans. “Old societal and cultural values often taught us to ‘sweep these things under the rug’ and maintain a ‘stiff upper lip’ rather than cry publicly. Yet crying is a natural reaction. Many people think that one should be able to manage these feelings on their own, and they are weak if they can’t. And while some forms of depression and anxiety can improve over time on their own, research shows talking about it, especially through psychotherapy, is very effective in alleviating symptoms.”
Phelps’ discussion is so important because when famous athletes and stars get out and talk about their own personal issues, it helps destigmatize and normalize those issues and shows that all individuals struggle with them to various degrees from time to time. “It is all part of life,” says Dr. Athans.
Do you or someone you know struggle with depression?
“People who are depressed may withdraw or isolate themselves,” says Dr. Athans. “They lack motivation and interest. Their sleep and appetite may change. They may be withdrawn and isolate themselves, making statements like ‘I don’t care.’ As a result, their physical health may be affected. Family and friends can encourage social interaction. Talking in general is therapeutic, as we share thoughts and feelings and can be supportive, understanding and empathetic. Intimate (emotional) relationships are always important to feeling connected.”
About the Author
Jacqueline Hughes is a former manager, media relations at Advocate Aurora Health. Previously, she was the public affairs and marketing manager at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, IL. She earned her BA in psychology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Jackie has 10 plus years experience working in television and media and most recently worked at NBC 5 in Chicago. In her free time, she enjoys swimming, going to the movies and spending time with her family.