Since Serena Williams shared her physical and emotional struggle following the birth of her daughter, hopefully people are coming closer to understanding that professional athletes are just as vulnerable to life’s obstacles as the rest of us. Now, Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps has come forward, sharing his personal battle with depression at a mental health conference in Chicago earlier in the week.
The event was held by a behavioral health advocacy group at the Kennedy Forum. In an interview with political strategist and senior CNN political commentator David Axelrod, the 28-time medalist and father of a 1-year-old son admitted “you do contemplate suicide,” when discussing his encounter with depression and anxiety. The highs and lows of competition, quite understandably, got to Phelps. “Really, after every Olympics I think I fell into a major state of depression," he said. "I would say '04 was probably the first depression spell I went through." 2004 was the year Phelps won his first gold medal, at the Athens Olympic Games. Later that year he was charged with driving under the influence. Phelps’ much publicized substance abuse was part and parcel with his mental health issues, he explained. "It would be just me self-medicating myself, basically daily, to try to fix whatever it was that I was trying to run from,” he said.
After what Phelps describes his “hardest fall” after the 2012 Olympics, he fell into a suicidal spiral. "I didn't want to be in the sport anymore...I didn't want to be alive anymore," he said. Fortunately, the swimmer sought help and began treatment, after which things got a lot better. "I said to myself so many times, 'Why didn't I do this 10 years ago?' But, I wasn't ready," Phelps said. The athlete acknowledges that there’s still a taboo around openly discussing mental illness, saying there’s “a stigma around it and that's something we still deal with every day.” However, he believes that socially, things have taken a turn for the better. “I think people actually finally understand it is real. People are talking about it and I think this is the only way that it can change," he said.
Since working to resolve his own battle with depression, Phelps has incorporated stress management into the programs offered by the Michael Phelps Foundation. He also works with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Looking back on his thoughts of suicide, Phelps said, "I am extremely thankful that I did not take my life."