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Michael Phelps: Pandemic has brought mental health issues to forefront

He and his wife Nicole Johnson also have been teaching their kids about the importance of mental health.

Michael Phelps speaks at the Special Olympics 50th Anniversary Concert at Northerly Island in 2018.
Michael Phelps speaks at the Special Olympics 50th Anniversary Concert at Northerly Island in 2018.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time. He’s also made waves being vocal about his mental health challenges.

The swimmer has spoken openly about his his struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. He says he’s seen “too many articles” about suicide during the pandemic, most recently about Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex.

“When I see somebody like that, yes, I do feel for them because, again, I know what that feels like, and it does break my heart,” Phelps says of the former Meghan Markle. “I can understand to some degree what that feels like. It is very scary, and you kind of really don’t know what to do.”

Phelps says the pandemic has brought mental health issues to the forefront.

“I think we’ve all learned there’s so much more to mental health than we ever knew or ever wanted to talk about, and that was something I was very afraid of,” he says. “It honestly destroys me every time I read [about suicide] because there are other outlets that we can take, and we can try to learn more.

“Getting our thoughts and feelings out in the open is something that changed my life,” he says. “If there is backlash or anybody does feel like that, your story is your story... You want to be the authentic you as much as you possibly can.”

Phelps says he thinks stars coming forward with these issues can help break down any stigma surrounding mental health.

“The fact that there are so many celebrities or so many people standing up and talking about the struggles that they have — I think that’s a way for us to really break down that stigma,” he says. “That’s something that’s been very challenging, still to this day I think it’s hard.”

He says coming forward with his struggles helped him grow. “Once we can really take care of our mental health as we do our physical health, then I feel like the opportunities will be endless of what we can really do.”

Just like his mental health, his physical health hasn’t taken a backseat during the pandemic. Phelps retired after the 2012 Olympics before making a comeback in April 2014. He retired from competitive swimming again after the Rio Olympics in 2016.

“I know that my body works and my mind works on having five, six days… usually seven days a week of some kind of working out,” he says — lifting weights, elliptical machines, a stationary bike and swimming are some of his go-tos. “It’s something that makes me me and the best me… I still take it very seriously.”

Phelps’ children Maverick,1, Beckett, 3 and Boomer, 4, also keep him active.

“It’s been a great way to keep my energy up,” he says. ”They’re constantly on the go.”

Sticking with routines during the pandemic has been important for his mental health.

“Whenever I get out of a routine, I kind of spiral,” he says, explaining he went from traveling 100 days of the year when he was swimming to not at all when the pandemic hit. “There was massive significant changes for me. So my emotional and mental health kind of went on a roller-coaster throughout everything... It’s been very challenging just because there have been so many unknowns.”

His family has helped him. “The boys for me were a big help,” he says.

Phelps and his wife Nicole Johnson have been teaching their kids about the importance of mental health.

“We’ve implemented this thing called a lion breath with them, where we taught them the importance of just taking that step back,” he says. ”A lion breath is really just taking a deep breath in, and, when you exhale, you can roar, or you can scream... really just to get that frustration or whatever you’re trying to get out out and talk about the emotions you’re going through and understand why you’re feeling that way.”

Phelps says the pandemic forced him to take a step back.

“I honestly do feel that it almost was a blessing for me,” he says, explaining he’s been able to “zone in on the things that are important” like family time and taking care of himself.


If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time or chat online.

Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis: Dial 741741.