Michael Phelps said he was “too scared” to go into therapy

For more than a decade, Michael Phelps has ruled the pool, holding the all-time record for Olympic medals (28 for Team USA, 23 of which are gold). But beneath the surface, he said, he doesn’t recognize himself as a person.

At the time, the stigma surrounding mental health forced Phelps, now 37, to wallow in his feelings until depression and anxiety began to spiral into suicidal thoughts and substance abuse. Therapy, societal shifts and daily routines helped him turn things around.

Phelps told Insider in an interview about his partnership with online behavioral health company Talkspace.

“The work I’ve done has allowed me to look in the mirror and look at who I see, the good, the bad, and the ugly,” he said.

While most of us know that taking care of our physical health and fitness is important, Phelps said it’s easy to forget to give our mental health the same attention, especially if you’re under pressure to perform, on the field or in everyday life.

Phelps said that acknowledging his mental health at the height of his career would have felt like a “sign of weakness”.

Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps in the pool celebrates with a fist pump after winning the gold medal in the men's 200m butterfly final on Day 4 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 9, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Phelps said athletes can face stigma when talking about mental health because it may be seen as a sign of weakness.

Adam Pretty / Getty Images

Now, more athletes are opening up about their experiences with depression, anxiety, and the pressure of performing at the elite level, from gymnast Simone Biles prioritizing self-care at the 2021 Olympics to rising NBA star Terrell Terry retiring with anxiety.

“I think the stigma is still there, but the door is a little open to letting people talk about it,” said Phelps. “It saves lives.”

While more structural support is needed around mental health, we can all start to take better care of ourselves with routines like journaling, getting more sleep, and kicking bad habits to perform better, whether it’s at the Olympics, in the Nine to nine o’clock in the morning. Phelps said: – Five jobs, or in our personal lives.

Athletes have weight rooms for training – why not for mental health?

Elite athletes stop at nothing to take the best care of their bodies, Phelps said, and we should all think about mental health the same way.

He said that if conditions such as depression, anxiety and stress were dealt with in the same way as physical injuries, it could save lives and greatly improve people’s ability to succeed in whatever area of ​​life they choose.

“If you go into a training room or weight room for any college or professional team, they’ll have anything and everything they might need. If that’s the case, why don’t we have another department dedicated to mental health?” Phelps said.

Michael Phelps

An athlete who works in the field of mental health and fitness can “become a superhero,” Phelps said.

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Despite being the most decorated Olympian in history, Phelps said he was “very scared” to go to therapy for the first time, but doing so and developing a mental health routine allowed him to feel like he could truly be himself.

“I haven’t fully taken care of myself for 20 years. Starting at the top, prioritizing mental health, and doing that in my daily routine, has given me the opportunity to become a better version of myself,” said Phelps.

Other athletes who have spoken out about the need for mental health support in competitive sports include tennis greats Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams, American basketball player Kevin Love and Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman. Raisman previously told Insider that she was so exhausted from competing that she struggled to wash her hair and said she didn’t trust USA Gymnastics to take care of the mental health of her athletes.

Simple daily habits like journaling can have a real impact

Phelps said one of his strategies for improving mental health is to take small steps every day.

One of the basic habits is to write a diary to get his thoughts and feelings out on paper. Previously, he said he struggled with compartmentalizing or avoided his feelings, joking that if suppressing emotions had been an Olympic sport, he could have “won a few gold medals”.

Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps holds a gold medal

Phelps holds the record for winning the most Olympic medals.

Adam Pretty / Getty Images

His routine has helped kick bad habits, too — Phelps makes a point of avoiding electronics at night, so he can get enough sleep to keep his mind and body healthy.

Phelps also said that he finds activities every day that bring him joy. For him, this is weightlifting in the gym. But whatever you choose, the key is to make time for it every day.

“If you want to start the new year by prioritizing your mental health, let’s start with a rhythm or routine of good habits,” Phelps said. “Focus on what you can control each day.”

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