Michael Phelps, Allison Schmitt call on experience to raise mental health awareness

Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt have done their share of news conferences during their medal-studded swimming careers, but not many like this one.

On National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day, they were at George Washington University to receive Special Recognition Awards from Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price for their support of young people with mental and substance abuse disorders.

Both have gone public to share their battles with depression, and Thursday afternoon — before the annual Awareness Day event put on by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) — both elaborated on the nature of their struggles, their support of each other and their reasons for coming forward to shed light on a widespread problem that many are afraid to open up about.

"I'm very passionate about mental health," Schmitt said, "and to be able to spread the tagline, 'It's OK to not be OK.' It's OK to ask for help and there is hope when you do ask for help. It's a passion of mine. I'm learning more about it and spreading hope to others."

Schmitt has suffered with serious bouts of depression and has taken her story of both Olympic glory and mental anguish around the country to show young people that they should not keep their own struggles a secret.

Phelps, who grew up in Rodgers Forge, admittedly hit bottom when he was arrested for the second time for drunk driving in 2014. He pleaded guilty and voluntarily admitted himself to a substance abuse rehabilitation center in Arizona, then opened up a year later in a Sports Illustrated cover story about his time in rehab and the depth of his depression.

"I've probably gone through three different stages of depression after Olympic Games," Phelps said Thursday, "and for me that was a sign that something in my life wasn't going right. I had to figure out what it was and what I was going to take on and what I was going to try and tackle. And, for me, my life was more important than that. For me, getting to an all-time low where I didn't want to be alive anymore, that's scary as hell.

"I remember sitting in my room for four or five days not wanting to be alive. Not talking to anybody. That was a struggle for me, but that also was a sign. For me, I reached that point where I realized I couldn't do it alone."

It might be hard to imagine that the most decorated athlete in Olympic history fell victim to multiple bouts of depression at a time when he was also bathing in international adulation. But Phelps said the drive to reach the top of his sport played a role in his struggle, and that is not uncommon among elite athletes.

"I think Allison can agree … once you get to the highest level of competition, which for us is the Olympic Games, you go four years into it and after the Olympics it's kind of like, 'What do I do? Where do I go?'" Phelps said. "You fall off almost. So, you find a lot of Olympic athletes who go through serious depression and I think the biggest thing as athletes is, we're supposed to be macho. We don't ask for help. We don't need to ask for help. For me, hoping now that other athletes will start asking for help when they realize what we've gone through and are standing up and talking about it."

Of course, the point of all this was for Phelps and Schmitt to team up and send a message to anyone — not just athletes — who is suffering in silence.

"Life is hard enough from a day-to-day standpoint and it's tough to do it by yourself," he said. "So, I would encourage more and more people when they find themselves going down the wrong path to find somebody to trust … to just talk to. Communication is so powerful.

"For me, I'm forever thankful for the support that I've had and finally realizing that it is OK. … For me, I've compartmentalized things for so long and I would shove them down farther, farther and farther. At one given time, I knew it was probably going to blow up on me and it wasn't going to end well. I found that point, and like I said, I realized I needed to ask for help and it's the greatest decision I ever made."

Schmitt, who began speaking out after learning that her cousin had committed suicide in 2015, is pursuing a master's degree in social work and counseling.

"At the end of the day, we're all human and we all have feelings and it's OK to talk about that," she said, "and it's OK to reach out and let someone else know that you are struggling, no matter where you fall on the spectrum."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

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