Michael Phelps locked himself in his bedroom for four days three years ago. He’d been arrested a second time for DUI. He was despondent and adrift. He thought about suicide.
“I didn’t want to be alive,” he tells USA TODAY Sports. “I didn’t want to see anyone else. I didn’t want to see another day.”
Family and friends — “a life-saving support group,” Phelps calls them — urged him to seek professional help. He got it. And now he wants others who are suffering from mental health issues to find the help they need.
Some will scoff at this. Phelps is the golden boy of the Olympic Games. Fame and fortune are his. Really, what could be so bad in his life?
That is never the right question. People from all walks of life suffer from a range of mental illnesses. Roughly 44 million Americans experienced some form of mental illness in 2015 (the most recent year for which numbers are available), according to estimates by the National Institute of Mental Health. That’s nearly one in five people aged 18 or over.
Athletes may be at increased risk, according to research by Lynette Hughes and Gerard Leavey of the Northern Ireland Association of Mental Health, who found that factors such as injuries, competitive failure and overtraining can lead to psychological distress. An NCAA survey of athletes found over the course of a year that 30% reported feeling depressed while half said they experienced high levels of anxiety.
Brent Walker, associate athletic director for championship performance at Columbia University, says he didn’t want to deal with the mental health side of performance when he began working in the field. Now, he says, “it is difficult to separate the mental health piece from the performance side of it.”
NBA legend Jerry West has struggled for decades with dark bouts of depression and low self-esteem. Sometimes people tell him he’s brave for speaking openly about it. He says that’s not courageous so much as honest.
“Some people hide their pain,”…