If you see Michael Phelps in an airport, please don’t gawk at him like he’s a zoo animal. “I’m a human being,” the most decorated Olympian of all time said repeatedly at a conference Thursday in New York City highlighting mental health issues in young people. The event was hosted by Talkspace, an online and mobile therapy company that connects users with therapists.
[See: Apps to Mind Your Mental Health .]
What you are welcome to do, however, is share a story about how mental illness has affected your life. Because if you haven’t heard, Phelps, 33, who is retired from competitive swimming, is no longer interested in winning medals or breaking records. Instead, he wants to help prevent people like him who have depression and other mental illnesses from taking their lives. “Saving a life is all I want to do,” he said.
Phelps has a personal motivation to care: In 2014, the same year he was arrested for driving under the influence, he spent days in his room, not wanting to see or talk to anyone. “During those days, I had lots of thoughts of not wanting to be alive,” he told Oren Frank, co-founder and CEO of Talkspace. But something in him pushed him to ask for help — something he said he had never done before. “I was hesitant to ask because I didn’t want to hear the word ‘no,'” he said.
Phelps is now married with two kids, and is a shareholder and advisory board member of Talkspace. He continues to learn how to manage his depression and anxiety and live life “on dry land” with the help of therapy, which has taught him how to use tools like affirmations and communication to solidify his worth and identity as more than a former Olympian and world-class swimmer. “What I did in the water doesn’t define who I am as a person,” he said he’s learned.
Phelps’ story was echoed by other Olympians at the event, including U.S. figure skating champion Sasha Cohen and skeleton world champion Katie Uhlaender. All three will be featured in an upcoming documentary, “The Weight of Gold,” which is directed by Brett Rapkin and explores the mental health issues plaguing many Olympic athletes. “It turns out this is a crisis,” Rapkin said.
Many elite athletes struggle in part because they never explored non-athletic interests or made expected mistakes in childhood and adolescence. Instead, they often “grow up” later in life and fumble through adulthood in the public eye. “I ate, slept and swam — that’s really all I did my whole entire life, and I’m learning just how to live life now,” Phelps said. “It’s frustrating, but also rewarding.”
Olympic athletes also commonly suffer from post-Olympic depression — a debilitating sense of “now what?” after spending years or even decades training for a brief moment on a global stage. Cohen, 34, compared the day after an Olympic performance to life after death: It’s something you know exists, but you can’t begin to comprehend what it will be like — beyond darkness. “I was sad, I was in shock — you don’t know what to do with yourself,” said Cohen, who’s still unsure how to identify herself, be it a world traveler, a finance professional, an athlete or something else. “I’m trying to give myself permission not to know.”
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