It has been seven years since Michael Phelps first publicly acknowledged the debilitating mental health issues he had struggled with throughout his legendary swimming career. The novella came out in November 2015 Sports Illustrated cover: The most decorated Olympian of all time suffered from anxiety and depression and had contemplated suicide.
“I still don’t know why at that exact moment I dropped everything,” Phelps says today. “For some reason the time and place was perfect and it was like, ‘I’m ready, buckle up.’ Looking back, that was the moment that probably saved my life: being able to let go of this stuff that I had been compartmentalizing for decades.
To commemorate this pivotal occasion, Phelps and AND are teaming up on a collection of digital covers to be released on December 6 via Web3 company OneOf. The collection is a nod to the original sports collectible trends of yesteryear, with action figures reimagined for Phelps’ ninth. Sports Illustrated cover. All profits will be donated to the Phelps Foundation established in 2008.
“It was one of the most meaningful stories of my career,” he says. “Mental health is so important to me and it will help us in what we are trying to do to reduce the stigma around mental health and get people the help and care they need.”
The story of Phelps’ mental health journey and how he uses his influence to help others is ongoing. Its chapters continue to evolve through the work of the Michael Phelps Foundation, through its partnership with online therapy company Talkspace, by simply being Michael Phelps.
“Despite everything I’ve been through, I saw a significant opportunity to impact mental health. I basically looked suicide in the face. I saw myself as a swimmer and not as a human. I had a swimming cap and a pair of goggles and people saw me as this kid who wins a ton of medals,” he says.
“And I am now on this side where I was able to find the help I needed to be able to look in the mirror and like what I see. I have feelings like everyone else, and the struggles I have are like everyone else is going through. So my thing is, ‘How do we help?’ ”
Phelps’ own journey to recovery began at a residential treatment center, where he was first introduced to therapy.
“I will say that the therapy saved me and helped me to live life on dry land a little easier. When I started seeing a therapist, I was like, “I don’t want to do this, it seems weird.” Then I come out of my first session and I was like, ‘Wow, that was awesome. Quite the opposite of what I thought,” he says.
“When I was in treatment we had basic emotions that were on the wall and every day we talked about them. Some days were more difficult than others, but being able to understand what you are feeling and communicate it is something important to all of us.
The Talkspace partnership was a natural fit for Phelps, who was used to being on the road for long periods of time and understood the danger of postponing a session because it was inconvenient to show up for an in-person appointment.
“For me, it’s about covering myself and being ready in any situation,” he says. “If I’m on the road and having a hard time, I can make a phone call, have Facetime, text my therapist. It’s just about having these tools ready at the slightest opportunity. C “That’s what I was doing when I was swimming. I was ready. I want to be ready if ever there’s a situation where I’m going to spin – and I trip – so for me, it was just perfect.
It’s no surprise that he also tapped into the mind-body connection and still trains in various capacities six or seven days a week.
“If I’m really in a dark place, I have to go swimming. It’s the only quiet place. I don’t have a lot of quiet time in my life and if I need that escape it’s ‘the place I can go and just turn off my mind because it’s so natural.
Phelps also does his share of journaling. “I still write a lot and I like to go back and watch it,” he says. “I’m pretty detailed about what’s going on. Whether I haven’t had enough sleep or not enough water…throughout my career, I’ve been used to paying attention to every little detail, and I just want to give myself the best chance every day of be the best of me. Obviously some days are harder than others, but if I’m able to get 5%, 10%, 20% of that day, then that’s a win.
Through his foundation, whose flagship IM program is a multi-faceted life skills program focused on water safety; physical, social and emotional health; and goal setting, it partners with Boys & Girls Clubs of America – the program has reached more than 35,000 participants – and Special Olympics International.
“Whether it’s kids overcoming their fear of swimming and becoming more confident, and then their grades improving in school and everything starting to move forward, I love being able to hear the stories,” says- he.
In fact, Phelps thrives on comments. “If someone comes forward and becomes vulnerable and shares their story because I shared my journey, to me that’s more important than anything else,” he says.
“For a long time I felt like I was standing on top of this mountain screaming and no one was listening. And now we’re at a point where more and more people are raising their hands in the air to try to get people to listen. We don’t shut these things down and cling to them, and hopefully that will allow people to become authentic themselves.
Of course, there are comments and there are comments.
A few years ago, Phelps was approached by a man at an airport who asked him how he was spending his time. Phelps replied that he was focused on de-stigmatizing mental health. “He said, ‘So you’re telling me you’re talking about your mental health and you think that’s going to help people? “, Phelps recalled. “And then he was like, ‘I think that’s almost a sign of weakness. And at that point, I pulled out both of my helmets and was like, ‘Dude…’”
After a bit more hindsight in which the man insisted neither he nor his loved ones suffered from PTSD, anxiety, depression – ‘I listed 10 different things’, says Phelps – Phelps said finally ended the conversation. It was a frustrating moment, but he’s a man who knows how to channel frustration into opportunity.
“I honestly couldn’t believe it, but at that moment I was like, ‘This that’s exactly why I do what I do,” he says.
“I hope that the mental health division of our foundation will continue to evolve. Every person needs something different, so I want to be able to give every option to try and save a life. Saving a life is far more important than ever winning a gold medal.
Mind Reading (formerly Hollywood & Mind) is a recurring column that lives at the intersection of entertainment and wellness, and features interviews with musicians, actors, and other cultural influencers who are elevating the conversation about mental health .
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