Michael Phelps is a sports icon. The most decorated Olympian of all time, he won 28 career medals, including an amazing 23 gold. He shattered many world records over the course of his career. However, despite his incredible success in competitive swimming, away from the pool he was among the many people who deal with depression. He's using his platform to help others with the condition. He recently spoke with NIH MedlinePlus magazine.
You have recently spoken out about challenges you faced with depression. Can you tell us about that?
Very few people knew who I really was and I took some wrong turns and found myself in the darkest place you could ever imagine that I hope nobody ever goes. I still remember the days locked up in my room, not wanting to talk to anybody, not wanting to see anybody, really not wanting to live. I was in a downward spiral on the express elevator to the bottom floor, wherever that might be.
I literally had no self-esteem, no self-love. I thought of myself as just a swimmer and nobody else. I was lost and pushing important people out of my life.
For me I think I had to reach my absolute rock bottom in order to get a wakeup call. I just decided something had to change. But I got help and the life that I live now is a dream come true.
"I got help and the life that I live now is a dream come true."
You've helped your long-time friend and fellow Olympic swimmer Allison Schmitt battle depression. How did your personal experiences aid with that?
I've joked that Allison is my "sister from another mother." I knew she was struggling. When I first raised it with her I said, 'Hey, I know you're not yourself, I know maybe you're going through things. I've been through a lot, and I'm here for you if you need help.'
I said to her about going to see a therapist—people do it and instead of holding it inside of you, get it out and when it is out of you, you're not carrying it around. That was from my own experience.
When you're in a place like that, you just kind of continue going into a dark hole. I didn't want to see her go through some of the things I went through.
I'm glad I was there to put my hand out, and I'm glad she accepted it. Accepting the emotions she had in her body, and talking about them and expressing them, really made a big impact on her.
- An estimated 19 million teens and adults in the United States have depression—feelings that do not go away and interfere with everyday life.
- Depression can affect people of all ages and is different for every person.
- Nearly 90 percent of those with severe depressive symptoms reported difficulty with work, home, or social activities.
- There are effective treatments for depression, including antidepressants, talk therapy, and other treatments. Talk with your health care professional if you feel you may have depression.
- Medications that treat depression usually take two to four weeks to work. Patients often have to try several antidepressants to find one that helps.
What is your message to others who face similar challenges?
I'd like to see us normalize the conversation about mental health, especially among children, and encourage kids, young adults, and adults alike to talk with people about their problems.
I think Allison summed it up the best when she said, "It's OK to not feel OK." I think that is an important message for all of us. It's OK to be vulnerable, and it's OK to ask for help.
I know opening up is easier said than done, but I also know what it's like to be in a dark place and feel like you have nobody else around. Yet all along, the people that could help me the most were the people that were right in front of me all along, the very same people I had pushed away. If not for them, their love and support, I couldn't have worked through my challenges. We are all human, we all have our struggles. Some are greater than others, but that doesn't lessen the impact or burden we feel. We are not alone, we just need to ask for help.