Michael Phelps wants to 'change the mental health world'

The most decorated Olympic athlete of all time spoke candidly about his mental health journey and advocacy at the HIMSS 2022 conference. Phelps said it’s time to break the stigma that prevents people from seeking help.

Orlando, Florida - Michael Phelps says he wants people to understand, as he said, “it’s OK to not be OK.”

Phelps spoke about his mental health journey in the closing session of the HIMSS 2020 Global Health Conference & Exhibition Friday. The swimming legend is the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, with 23 gold medals, but Phelps has also struggled with depression.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated published in 2018, Phelps acknowledged for the first time that he considered suicide. His own battles have driven him to become an outspoken advocate for mental health issues, a focus of his own non-profit organization, the Michael Phelps Foundation.

“I want to change the mental health world,” Phelps said.

“It’s scary to not want to be alive,” Phelps said. “I want to help anyone going through that find the help they need.”

Speaking to a crowd of hundreds of healthcare professionals, Phelps candidly discussed his own struggles. And he made it clear that they aren’t just a part of his past. They are still very much a part of his life.

“I’m trying to be my authentic self,” Phelps said.

“Do I struggle with depression? Yes. Do I struggle with anxiety? Yes,” he told the crowd.

At one point during a question-and-answer period with members of the audience, Phelps was asked for his advice on helping a woman battling depression. Phelps told the questioner to let her know she’s not alone, because he’s still going through it.

“You’d be surprised,” Phelps said. “There are some days I feel like … yeah, I’ll just leave it there.”

Phelps also talked about the value of being honest with his struggles, including telling his children when he isn’t feeling his best. He recounted a moment with one of his three sons. He said he told his son, “I’m having a Daddy day, and he knows what that means. And he gave me a hug.”

He said he thinks it’s important for his children to understand when he is having a bad day, and he also said he encourages them to open up about their own feelings.

“I’m trying to get them to communicate and open up as much as they possibly can, so they’re not carrying this extra weight through life,” Phelps said.

Phelps stressed the idea of being honest about feeling “vulnerable,” even though he conceded that can be a scary word. He said acknowledging his vulnerability saved his life.

When he was younger, he said he probably could’ve won a gold medal in “compartmentalizing," if that were a sport. As he said, “That’s not really something to be proud of.”

Now, Phelps does what he needs to do when he’s not at his best. Sometimes, he said that means taking a “me day.” When the kids are starting to push his buttons, he said he’ll go shoot hoops or go into his office and take a breath.

“If we’re not taking care of ourselves, we have no chance,” he said.

Even with his struggles, Phelps expresses a comfort and ease with his life and his battles. Displaying a self-deprecating humor, he seemed to enjoy engaging with the audience during a question-and-answer period.

Now 36 and still trim in a blue suit (Phelps said he doesn’t particularly enjoy eating after years of gorging required in competitive swimming), he exudes confidence and gratitude, even if it’s not always easy.

“I like who I see in the mirror now,” Phelps said. “I used to not like that.”

“I’m OK with being who I am,” he said. “I like who I am. I’m comfortable in my own skin.”

Phelps said his foundation, aimed at young people, began by teaching them about swimming. Now, it has expanded to include mental health advocacy.

When people ask him what he’s doing now that he’s retired from competitive swimming, he said he answers, “Mental health. That’s literally it. That’s all I’m doing.”

Healthcare professionals have often refused to seek help when they are struggling with mental health, with devastating consequences. Lorna Breen, an emergency doctor, died by suicide after becoming exhausted and overwhelmed treating COVID-19 patients early in the pandemic. Her experience inspired a new federal law, the Lorna Breen Act, which directs money for programs to address mental health and burnout in healthcare professionals.

Many doctors and nurses don’t pursue treatment for mental health because they are worried about the stigma of seeking help. Some even mistakenly worry that getting treatment could hurt their careers or even cost them their licenses.

Phelps talked about the need to get rid of the stigma that seeking mental health is a sign of failure or weakness.

“Communication is something that saved my life, and I think that’s the only way we’re going to break this stigma,” he said.

“We can’t do this by ourselves,” Phelps said. “We need the help from everyone.”

Even though he has won more gold medals than any other athlete to compete in the Olympics, Phelps said his work on mental health is far more important to him.

“To be able to have a chance to save a life is a million times better than winning a gold medal,” Phelps said.

“I want to make an impact and I want to save lives.”

If you're struggling or someone you know is struggling, help is available through the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Call 800-273-TALK (8255). The hotline is available around the clock.