The Olympic gold medalist shares how therapy helped him learn to accept his depression and anxiety, setting him on the right path to improve his mental health.
Every day, Michael Phelps works out in his home gym. And the most decorated American Olympian of all time also works on his mental health daily.
“Throughout my career, I had a team of people around me that were paying attention to my physical health. If I needed to get stronger, there were 10 people finding out ways for me to get stronger. But mentally that wasn’t the case,” Phelps told Healthline.
After living with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts for years, he began prioritizing putting equal emphasis on his physical and mental health.
In 2004, after winning six gold and two bronze medals at the Athens Olympics, Phelps said he felt “post-Olympic depression” for the first time.
“[You] work so hard for four years to get to that point, and then it’s like you’re…at the top of the mountain, you’re like what the hell am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to go? Who am I?” he said.
He took a short break, but jumped back into training shortly after the 2004 Olympics ended, going on to compete in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
“[I] kind of compartmentalized those feelings and sure enough over time, they decided to reappear whenever they wanted until I was able to get a better understanding of who I am and how I work and why and how I am,” said Phelps.
However, his push to self-reflection and self-awareness didn’t occur until 2014 when he received his second DUI.
“I felt like I didn’t want to be alive anymore and I felt for me that I was causing a lot of stress and issues for other people around me, so I thought the best thing for me to do was just leave,” he explained.
In the depths of his depression, Phelps stayed in his room for several days, contemplating what to do next.
“I then just decided that it was time to take a step to try to find a different route, a different path,” he said.
In 2014, Phelps checked himself into an in-patient treatment center, where he spent 45 days.
“As soon as I came out, I continued the therapy that I had in my treatment center. For me, you know, when I first started it was kind of freaky, kind of scary, something that was new and I didn’t really know what to expect, and I guess that was where vulnerability snuck in the first time,” Phelps said.
When he left the facility, he began feeling mentally well.
“I started feeling like a person…I guess I could love myself and like who I saw. I think for a long time I looked at myself as a swimmer and not a human, so being able to learn more about me, how I worked, why I work that way through treatment and through unpacking all the extra crap that I had inside of me,” he said.
Erica Wickett, psychotherapist at BetterMynd, said professional help is vital for people struggling with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
“Often when I meet with clients struggling with these issues, they’ve hit a breaking point where their lives feel like it no longer makes sense to them. This feeling can be incredibly isolating and often there is a need for help outside of their existing support systems to help them make sense of things again,” she told Healthline.
Therapeutic spaces offer the opportunity to safely explore feelings in a compassionate and empowering environment that encourages self-compassion and understanding, Wickett added.
While therapy gave Phelps an understanding of himself and tools to cope with his mental health, he said it’s an ongoing journey to stay mentally well.
“My depression and my anxiety is never going to just disappear. I’m never going to be able to snap my fingers and say ‘Go away. Leave me alone.’ It makes me. It is a part of me. It’s always going to be a part of me,” he said.
Deborah Serani, PsyD, psychologist and professor of psychology at Adelphi University, said serious mental health conditions like depression and anxiety cannot be willed away or reduced with casual changes in lifestyle.
“Mental health is [not] just a state of mind one can choose. Depression and anxiety are neurobiological illnesses that require professional assessment, targeted treatment, and chronic management,” she told Healthline.
Phelps noted that management of his mental health requires flexibility. He compared becoming as mentally strong as possible to that of becoming the best swimmer possible.
“Throughout my career, there was no blueprint on winning eight gold medals; it was kind of trial and error that we had to figure out a way to get there. So, for [my mental health] …I can’t expect to have every answer today, but I also have to give myself forgiveness because I’m still learning and at times that is hard,” he said. “[I] want to be as perfect and I want to learn as fast as I can, but at times, that’s not possible.”
While he leans on therapy, exercise, and self-care measures like journaling to cope, he accepts that what works today might not work tomorrow.
“I’m constantly learning. I’m constantly growing,” he said.
As a world-renowned Olympian, Phelps is bringing awareness to mental health across the globe. As a male, he is breaking unique barriers, too.
“I can speak from an athlete perspective of being a male and an athlete. If I was to speak up during my career, I would feel like it would be a sign of weakness…and we’re giving our competitors that edge, and in sports or basically kind of in battle, it’s like you can’t give your competitors that edge,” he said.
Although he thinks the stigma is still there, he believes the pandemic has helped normalize the conversation.
“I think [the stigma] is dropping a little bit and for me, it’s incredible to see that. It’s incredible to see people talking about their own journey their own way, and sharing their own stories,” Phelps said.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, anxiety and depression has more than tripled among Americans during the pandemic.
As studies show the onset of COVID-19 and the fallout of living through a pandemic has had an unexpected reduction of stigma when it comes to mental illness, Serani said of greatest interest is that the younger generation of adolescents are driving the momentum to reduce the stigma of mental illness.
“Teens and young adults are leading the statistics in the reach-out for mental health therapy during COVID. They’re also talking about therapy, mental health, and stigma with each other in schools and widely throughout social media,” she said.
While this may be a silver lining of the pandemic, Lauren Amigo, licensed art therapist at BetterMynd, said the focus of the pandemic remained on physical health. She pointed out the numerous flyers, emails, news interviews, and articles about how to stay physically healthy from COVID-19.
“[But] I can’t remember even a fraction of that being focused on staying mentally healthy. [Although] I am grateful that this sparked a larger conversation of mental health wellness, I do believe that more could have been done,” Amigo told Healthline.
Phelps plans to do more.
Currently, he teamed up with Talkspace to launch the Permission Slip campaign, which aims to inspire people to give themselves a symbolic “mental health permission slip” and take action for their own mental well-being.
“Look at what we’ve been through these past two, two plus years. When I first looked [at this campaign] I thought I need to give myself more of a break because I stress myself out by trying to have everything be as perfect as it can and in reality, it’s not possible,” he said. “It’s so powerful to see something like this because it gives us the chance to express ourselves and in a safe way.”
Since Phelps partnered with Talkspace in 2018, he said his main mission has been to spread awareness about mental health and to let others know there is hope for healing.
“I hate seeing the suicide rate increase more and more. I hate opening the news and seeing somebody [died by suicide] …because I do know what that feels like to not want to be alive,” said Phelps. “[And] I also know…there is light at the end of the tunnel.”