Although athletes today have worldwide fame, fortune and more success than most people dream of, their lives are far from easy. Athletes constantly fight a hidden opponent that’s a far tougher foe than any in their sport: mental health.
Mental illness is no joke. According to estimates by the National Institute of Mental Health, roughly 44 million Americans reported experiencing some form of mental illness in 2015. That’s nearly one in five people over 18 years old.
Especially in professional sports, injuries, competitive failure and overtraining often lead to immense psychological distress, which is the primary causal factor in mental illness development.
This column aims to highlight individual athletes who have well-documented struggles with mental illness and to help create a better understanding of the burdens they bear. This week I profile Olympic golden boy Michael Phelps’ struggle with depression.
For most of his life, Phelps saw himself in much the same way as everyone else around him did: a swimmer— and nothing else. Now 32, Phelps wants the world to see him as a husband, father — yes, the most decorated Olympian of all time — but also as a sufferer of depression.
Along with his 28 Olympic medals, Phelps has accumulated two DUIs, one in 2004 and another in 2014. A photo of him holding a bong at a party went viral shortly after the 2008 Summer Olympic games.
“Really, after every Olympics, I think I fell into a major state of depression,” Phelps told CNN on Saturday when asked to pinpoint when his trouble began.
He noticed a pattern of emotion “that wasn’t right” around the beginning of October or November of every year, he said.
“I would say ’04 was probably the first depression spell I went through,” Phelps said. Unsurprisingly, 2004 was the year he got his first DUI.
After his second DUI in 2014, the Olympian locked himself in his bedroom for four days before checking into rehab to deal with the anxiety and depression that he had tried to overcome on his own after each Olympic game.
Phelps remembered ignoring his dark feelings rather than working through what was bothering him.
“After years of shoving every negative, bad feeling down to the point where I mean, I just didn’t even feel it anymore,” he told the TODAY show in December. “It was a long, long, long road and I just never wanted to deal with it. And that sent me down a spiral staircase real quick and, like I said, I found myself in a spot where I didn’t want to be alive anymore.”
Phelps credits his decision to see a therapist and ability to talk about what he had been storing away with saving his life.
After experiencing how difficult it is for many people to recognize their vulnerabilities and reach out for help, Phelps has devoted himself to unraveling the stigma of mental illness.
“I want to be able to get out in public and talk and say that I’ve done these great things in the pool, but I’m also a human,” Phelps said to NBC in an interview after the 2016 games. “I’m going through the same struggles as a lot of the people in this room.”
Phelps has started speaking publicly on mental health in professional sports and has become an informal counselor to stars facing similar pressures. In particular, he reached out to Tiger Woods after his DUI arrest in May 2017.
“It’s good for athletes to be open about who they are and for people to see we’re far from perfect,” Phelps told USA Today in August. “We’re not gods. I’m human like everybody else.”
Now retired from competitive swimming, Phelps doesn’t have to worry about what’s next. His advocacy about mental health has given him reason to remain involved in athletics, albeit in a different role.
“My talent was in the swimming pool, but it’s led me to something else in life,” Phelps said in the interview. “It’s a duty; it’s an honor to talk about mental health. But I’m really just being my authentic self, sharing my story.”
To access confidential mental health resources, reach out to Counseling and Psychiatric Services at 202-687-6985, or for after-hours emergencies, call 202-444-7243 and ask to speak to the on-call clinician. You can also reach out to Health Education Services at 202-687-8949. Carter Owen is a sophomore in the McDonough School of Business. THE HIDDEN OPPONENT appears every other Friday.