Michael Phelps looks back at his issues with depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts
Most would assume winning 28 Olympic medals – 23 of which were gold medals – would be the most rewarding part of Michael Phelps’ life. However, he says helping others with depression has been even more fulfilling.
As part of The Kennedy Forum in Chicago addressing depression, suicide, and mental illness, Phelps spoke with political strategist David Axelrod about how he has spent the years since his last Olympics appearance coming to terms with depression and helping others.
The Cycle of Depression
Phelps’s Olympic wins have frequently been punctuated by issues with substance abuse and depression.
“Really, after every Olympics I think I fell into a major state of depression,” said Phelps when asked to pinpoint when his trouble began. He noticed a pattern of emotion “that just wasn’t right” at “a certain time during every year,” around the beginning of October or November, he said. “I would say ’04 was probably the first depression spell I went through.”
As Axelrod noted, this was the same year Phelps was first charged with driving under the influence.
The next Olympics – in which Phelps won a record eight gold medals – was followed by the infamous photograph of the swimmer smoking marijuana from a bong.
At the time, the photo appeared to show Phelps taking celebrating his wins too far. But, in hindsight, it was evidence of the athlete’s continued struggles with depression. He said drugs were his ways of running from “whatever it was I wanted to run from.” He continued, “It would be just me self-medicating myself, basically daily, to try to fix whatever it was I was trying to run from.”
On the surface, the 2012 Olympics seemed to break this pattern of self-described explosions. He retired from the sport and soon-after slipped away from the public eye. In private, however, Phelps said he lived through the “hardest fall” of his life. “I didn’t want to be in the sport anymore … I didn’t want to be alive anymore.”
It took another DUI in 2014 and this “all-time low” of Phelps sitting along for “three to five days […] just not wanting to be alive” to realize he needed help. Soon after, he entered treatment.
Learning to talk about depression and feelings
“I remember going to treatment my very first day, I was shaking, shaking because I was nervous about the change that was coming up,” Phelps told Axelrod. “I needed to figure out what was going on.”
He recalled how it took time for him to adjust to openly talking about his emotions.
On the first morning of treatment, a nurse woke him early and told him to “look at the wall and tell me what you feel.”
The wall had eight basic emotions hung up.
“How do you think I feel right now, I’m pretty ticked off, I’m not happy, I’m not a morning person,” he angrily responded. Looking back now, he laughs at the memory.
Once he got used to talking about his feelings, Phelps said “life became easy.”
“I said to myself so many times, ‘Why didn’t I do this 10 years ago?’ But, I wasn’t ready.”
“I was very good at compartmentalizing things and stuffing things away that I didn’t want to talk about, I didn’t want to deal with, I didn’t want to bring up — I just never ever wanted to see those things,” said Phelps.
Since his time in treatment, Phelps has incorporated aspects of what he learned, such as stress management techniques, into programs offered by the Michael Phelps Foundation. He also works with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
Now, he says he has learned it is “Ok to not be OK.” He agrees that while mental illness still “has a stigma around it,” things are beginning to improve. “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.”
“That’s the reason why suicide rates are going up — people are afraid to talk and open up,” said Phelps.
By working with young athletes and sharing his experience, Phelps said he has the chance to reach people when they are vulnerable and save lives, “and that’s way more powerful.”
“Those moments and those feelings and those emotions for me are light years better than winning the Olympic gold medal,” said Phelps.
“I am extremely thankful that I did not take my life.”
If you are living with suicidal thoughts or depression, please call Brookhaven at (888) 298-4673 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 for immediate support.