Escaping depression: Michael Phelps says up to 75 per cent of US Olympians may suffer mental health problems

The 23-time gold medallist has gone through his own struggles and is ready to lend a helping hand to those with similar post-career problems

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 May, 2018, 6:42pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 May, 2018, 9:21pm

Olympic superstar Michael Phelps revealed on Friday he was a firm believer in the positive impact digital media is having in helping professional athletes escape the often suffocating bubble they can find themselves trapped in.

“The platform athletes have today is so powerful to talk about things that are meaningful,” said Phelps. “Yes we’re athletes but we’re normal people too. We’re human.”

The record 23-time Olympic gold medallist has only recently revealed his own struggles with depression – which led the American to contemplate suicide after the 2012 London Games. Phelps has blamed his troubles on the isolation felt by many of the world’s sport stars and he has since offered advice to the likes of golfing great Tiger Woods on how to cope.

“I would say on the American side, 70 to 75 per cent of Olympians who come out go through some kind of depression,” said Phelps. “You build over four years to get there and then you’re twiddling your thumbs. You don’t know what to do. So to be in the position to talk to these people is huge. More people are coming out and talking about it and it is real. We’re all human. We all go through daily struggles.

“There are lot of things we can do as athletes and together as human beings to be able to help people to just get up and talk about the struggles they have. For me talking about it changed my life.”

Phelps said there were people he could have talked to during his darkest days. But he chose not to.

“I chose to be big and macho and deal with it myself,” said Phelps. “And obviously I struggled with that and it led me to not the greatest places in the world. But I was able to bounce back learn more about me and learn that it’s OK to not be OK. I can open up now and I can ask questions and that’s something I never felt before.”

Phelps has been in Singapore this week as a guest speaker at the inaugural What’s Next in Global Sports conference organised by Nielsen Sports and the One Championship organisation. He was also set to take up a cage-side seat at Friday night’s One: Unstoppable Dreams fight card at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.

Also set to be cage side was Singaporean gold medallist Joseph Schooling, the man who downed Phelps in his final individual Olympic event, winning the 100m butterfly in Rio in 2016 in a Games record (50.39 seconds) and just touching out (and destroying) what would have been the fairy tale ending for the American. Phelps finished in a three-way tie for second, 0.75 seconds behind.

This week has been the first time the pair’s paths have crossed since that event and Phelps also revealed he had been in contact with the 22-year-old Singaporean who has since battled to match that heroic effort in Rio.

“He’s asked a few questions and we’ve played phone tag a little bit,” said Phelps. “But it was good today being able to finally talk about some of the things he’s been going though. Obviously it’s a whole new process for him now and being an Olympic champion there are a whole new set of things that comes with that. But he’s got all the potential to do whatever he wants.”

Phelps was attending a combat sport event for the first time and said he had been impressed by its global growth, which has in no small part been down to the fact the likes of mixed martial arts have been quick to adapt to new technology and to methods of reaching out to its fan base through social media.

An example of that was on show on Friday as the One organisation used this event to launch its “super app”, which offers fans anywhere free live coverage of its fight cards.

“I think we can all learn things from all sports,” said Phelps. “There are now so many things you can take from one sport to another. The [digital content] is our world now. Being able to take that quick little video and put on Instagram or Twitter and the whole world wants to see it. That’s the world we live in. I think it’s helping sports in general continue to grow and take off.”