He is the most decorated Olympic competitor in history. The epitome of what a successful athlete achieves over a career. Lauded by fellow competitors and the media, adored by his fans, Michael Phelps’ life looked like an American success story. But for Michael Phelps, depression was a constant companion, so bad at some points that he considered taking his own life.
Michael Phelps and Substance Use
Phelps started competitive swimming when he was 15. He competed in his first Olympics in 2000. Over the next four Olympics, he won 28 medals including 23 gold, the most of any athlete ever to compete in the Olympic Games. In 2016, his final Olympics in Rio, he won five gold medals and one silver.
As he was enjoying this unprecedented Olympic success, however, he was also dealing with debilitating depression. It was particularly bad after each Olympic Games he later said. He would go home and sit on his bed for days, never leaving his room, hardly sleeping and hardly eating, moody and depressed.
In 2004, shortly after the Olympic Games he was arrested on his first DUI charge. Then stories started to appear around Michael Phelps and addiction. In 2008, after winning eight gold medals in the Olympic Games, a photograph of him smoking a bong appeared.
Michael Phelps and Suicide
After the Olympics in 2012, Phelps later admitted that the depression was so bad that he began to consider suicide.
In 2014, he was arrested for his second DUI and was suspended by USA Swimming for six months. Then in 2016, Phelps did what few successful athletes have done. He publicly admitted he suffered from severe depression and had reached out for professional help.
“I struggled with anxiety and depression and questioned whether or not I wanted to be alive anymore,” he tweeted about those experiences in May 2019. “It was when I hit this low that I decided to reach out and ask for the help of a licensed therapist. This decision ultimately helped save my life.”
What Is Depression?
Depression is a disorder that can affect every aspect of your life. It’s not like the 24-hour flu or a headache that goes away. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), depression can affect almost every area of your life, including eating meals, work or education, your sleep, your ability to concentrate and your relationships with friends and family.
According to the ADAA:
- About 16 million Americans suffer from a major depressive disorder every year.
- More women are affected than men.
- Among people aged 15-45, depression is the leading cause of disability.
- Millions of other Americans suffer from persistent depressive disorder, a condition marked by a low, sad or dark mood that remains for most of the day and for many days.
- Globally, 322 million people suffer regularly from depression.
Michael Phelps and Depression
As Michael Phelps noted in the tweet mentioned above, his decision to reach out for help probably saved his life. Since then, Phelps has spoken at length about his illness and how important it is for others not to try to hide the condition.
Three important things that Phelps learned about mental illness over this time include:
The importance of admitting you have a problem
As Phelps said in an interview with ESPN, “You can only get help if you ask for it.”
Many people believe they can work their way through depression on their own. But that’s the difference between sadness and depression. When people are sad, they can change their moods through exercise, by calling a friend or by doing some activity they enjoy.
Depression, however, doesn’t go away no matter how hard you try. Dealing with depression, especially severe depression, requires working with a therapist who can help you understand why you’re feeling that way.
Finding someone to talk to about your depression
Phelps said that once he started to talk about his emotions, “life became easy.”
“Throughout my career, I got very good at compartmentalizing and stuffing things away and not dealing with any of it. I finally learned to communicate at 30 in therapy,” he told HealthDay in 2018.
Knowing that “it’s okay not to be okay”
In a Kennedy Forum conference in 2018, Phelps said one of the most important things you learn is that “it’s okay not to be okay.”
Mental illness has a stigma around it, he said, and people like him need to deal with it every day. But he is seeing a change in the way people are reacting to mental illness because so many people, especially athletes and celebrities, have gone public about their problems.
“As an athlete, I learned that we’re supposed to be these big macho people that don’t have any problems, and we’re not supposed to show weakness, but that’s so wrong. I’m so thankful that I can ask for help now,” he told HealthDay.
Michael Phelps and Mental Health
These days, Phelps is using his public persona to help others. He founded the Michael Phelps Foundation, which promotes swimming along with a healthy lifestyle for youngsters.
He believes his public appearances and talking about his struggles with depression are helping others.
“Somebody told me yesterday about his daughter going through a very, very deep depression and not really wanting to be alive,” Phelps told The Associated Press in 2018. “She read stories about me opening up. He told me how much that helped her. For me, that’s way bigger than ever winning gold medals.”
How We Can Help at FHE Health
Everyone needs a mental health day now and then. But if a mental health day doesn’t alleviate your depression or anxiety, as Michael Phelps said, you can only get help if you ask for it. You can call us at (833) 596-3502. Our caring team of counselors are available to take your call 24/7. Today is the day to start your journey to recovery.