Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt are more than just Olympic swimmers — they're also good friends. Phelps sometimes calls Schmitt his "sister from another mother," according to The Baltimore Sun, and the duo has helped each other through some rough times.
During a panel for Mental Health Awareness Day on May 4, Schmitt recalled when Phelps was able to help her speak out about her depression and seek help after her younger cousin died by suicide last year.
"It took my cousin losing her life to suicide to realize that it’s okay to talk about having to go to a psychologist," Schmitt said. Before, she would tend to give friends an excuse as to where she needed to be, saying something vague like she "had an appointment." After her cousin's death and at Phelps' encouragement to see someone, she realized that "it's okay to not be okay."
That realization, and the fact that many people struggling with mental health also feel that they need to hide it, is part of the reason Schmitt and Phelps felt they should add their voices to the Substance Abuse And Mental Health Services Administration’s National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day event.
Schmitt and Phelps served as honorary chairpersons of the event on Thursday, which advocated for better communication between kids who may be experiencing mental health problems, their families, therapists, and primary doctors among others.
Growing up with ADHD and depression, Phelps said he didn't know how to reach out for help for the longest time — partially due to stigma. When he was in school, he was expected to go to the nurses office every day to take Ritalin, a medication used to help people manage ADHD. He remembers telling his mom that he no longer wanted to take his meds just because he didn't want to have to go to the nurse every day.
Now, he thinks it's important to be open about what he went through for the people who may be experiencing what he did growing up.
"There are people going through the same exact things that I went through, that Allison went through," Phelps said. "It's powerful to think back to the dark times… being at that place changed my life because I was able to overcome it."
However, overcoming mental health problems does not mean that they are gone. Schmitt pointed to the idea that a person who has depression or ADHD or anxiety or any number of other mental health diagnoses constantly lives with the symptoms.
"Mental illness is something you deal with every day, just because you go to a psychologist, just because you’re feeling better one day doesn’t mean it’s gone; doesn’t mean you’re healed,” she said. “It’s something you have and you live with the rest of your life. Learning ways to cope with it, learning ways to live with it is what we do.”
That's why good communication between people with mental health problems and their healthcare providers is so important, as well as a support system of family or friends. Phelps recalled a time in his life when he didn't know how to reach out for help, but then reached a point where there was no other option.
“For me getting to an all-time low where I didn’t want to be alive anymore, that’s scary as hell,” Phelps said. “I remember sitting in my room for four or five days not wanting to be alive, not talking to anybody. I reached that point where I finally realized I couldn’t do it alone.”
His advice for young people who may be going through the same struggle is to recognize when you need help and to ask for it.
"There are people that will reach their hand out to help you. It’s just a matter of you asking for help."
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.
If you are experiencing depression and need support, please call the National Depressive/Manic-Depressive Association Hotline at 1-800-826-3632 or the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.