Michael Phelps Receives Award For Mental Health Advocacy

By Kelly Burch 05/24/19

Phelps has been working to end the stigma associated with mental illness through his nonprofit foundation.

Michael Phelps

With 23 Olympic gold medals, Michael Phelps is the most successful Olympian in history—but that didn’t stop him from experiencing mental illness. 

"Probably my first real depression spell was after 2004, then the next big one was after 2008," Phelps told the Associated Press in a recent interview, ESPN reported. "When you set out to be an Olympian, your whole life is put on hold. All the eggs are in one basket. I would say 2004, 2008, 2012, partly after '16 (all Olympic years) I've dealt with pretty severe depression spells. I was kind of lost at that point.”

After two DUIs, by 2014 Phelps checked himself into treatment, and since then he has been a vocal proponent for reducing stigma around depression and other mental illnesses. On Tuesday (May 21) Phelps received the Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion for the work he has done to reduce stigma through the Michael Phelps Foundation.

"Michael Phelps is a unique leader who has used his fame and status as the greatest swimmer of all time to challenge our society to remove stigma surrounding mental health," said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation. 

Phelps never planned to become a mental health advocate. 

"When I first really opened up about the struggles that I had in '15, obviously I dreamed of being able to get more publicity to this and to really share my journey and have other people share their journeys with me as well," he said. "Honestly, I never thought it would be as big as this, but it's been a true dream to be able to watch the growth that mental health has taken, almost being at center stage.”

Being able to help other people struggling with depression has meant more to him than his athletic success, he said. "Through this, if I can save one life, two lives, five lives, a thousand, a million, to me that's so much more important than winning a gold medal.” 

Phelps said that he has seen firsthand the difference that quality mental health treatment can make. Today, he is married with two children and a third on the way, and he has embraced his new role as a mental health advocate. 

"When I was in my room and not wanting to talk to anybody for a number of days and not wanting to be alive, I wanted to see what other roads I could take to see if there was help," he said. "I know it's something that changed my life and saved my life and allowed me to be able to be where I am today, enjoying the platform of talking about something that's so important."

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.