The Decision to Get Help Saved my Life: Phelps on his Depression

“I struggled with anxiety and depression, questioning if I wanted to live, then I sought help” says Michael Phelps.

Updated27 May 2019, 10:14 AM IST
Mind It
3 min read

Twenty three Olympic golds and a total of 28 Olympic medals – Michael Phelps is perhaps the most successful sportsperson in the world. He also battles severe anxiety and depression.

This Mental Health Awareness Month, Phelps teamed up with TalkSpace, an online therapy portal, to take the conversation forward.

At the beginning of 2018, the Olympian broke his silence around a subject that is often stigmatised and silenced, specially in a field as competitive and highly pressuring as professional sports.

‘You Do Contemplate Suicide’

...said Phelps to a stunned audience at a mental health conference organised by the Kennedy Forum earlier in January in Chicago, according to CNN.

He said he fell into a depressive state pretty much after every Olympic event, right when he should have been celebrating his immense success. In 2004, he was charged while driving under influence and in 2008, he was photographed smoking from a bong. He said substance abuse became his fall back, it helped him escape.

All through this battle, he kept winning medals and breaking records at Olympics; 2012 was Phelps’ lowest point.

The hardest fall was after the 2012 Olympics. I didn’t want to be in the sport anymore... I didn’t want to be alive anymore.
Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps Foundation offers stress management to sports persons.
Michael Phelps Foundation offers stress management to sports persons.
(Photo: The Quint)

While newsprint was full of his mind-boggling achievements (he won four golds and two silvers) and he was being lauded for his hard work and perseverance, Phelps was in his room, sitting alone for three-four days, not talking, not eating, barely sleeping and “not wanting to be alive.”

In the same interview he spoke about seeking help and how it didn’t come easy.

I remember going to treatment my very first day, I was shaking, shaking because I was nervous about the change that was coming up.
Michael Phelps

Once he sought help, he often wondered why he had not done this years ago.

That’s the battle many sportspersons face. Competitive sport is a lonely place to be in. The pressure to perform on each outing, to push yourself, to insulate yourself from your competitors and sometimes even teammates takes a toll.

We’re supposed to be this big, macho, physically strong human beings, but this is not a weakness. We are seeking and reaching for help.
Michael Phelps

Lack of Research

A recent research by the Technical University of Munich, quoted in The Guardian, revealed that individual sportspersons are more prone to depression than those who play team sports. In team, responsibility for loss or failure is more evenly distributed. Lack of peer support and excessive competition leads to young athletes being more prone to depression.

But there is just not enough research done on the mental health of athletes. Some analytical studies have been published, but silence by most and unwillingness to acknowledge anything that may be perceived as weakness among sportspersons hinder this.

Michael Phelps Foundation now offers stress management to athletes. Phelps says talking about his battle has given him a bigger high than winning all those medals.

(Talking about it) that’s way more powerful. Those moments and those feelings and those emotions for me are light years better than winning the Olympic gold medal. I am extremely thankful that I did not take my life.
Michael Phelps

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Published: 29 Jun 2018, 11:46 AM IST

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