World champion swimmer Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time, having won 23 gold medals in a storied career, 28 in total.
He married former Miss California Nicole Johnson in 2016. The couple recently had their third son.
On the surface, he is one of the world’s greatest athletes and represents the American dream. But behind the successful façade, Phelps has long struggled with debilitating depression and anxiety.
His condition resulted in well-documented problems involving alcohol and drugs, including DUI episodes in 2009 and 2014 and an incident that went viral in 2009 after he was pictured using a bong at a party.
Phelps’ struggles with depression and ADHD even led him to consider suicide in 2012, the year of the London Olympics, following which he retired from swimming.
He described his feelings thus: “I hadn’t left my room for five days. I questioned whether I wanted to be alive anymore. I realized I am the strongest person I know, but I felt like the weakest.”
Phelps first dipped his toe in the water of advocacy in 2008 when he set up the Michael Phelps Foundation to promote swimming and healthier lifestyles, but his real influence has come in mental health awareness.
His most high-profile involvement is with online therapy system Talkspace, which offers on-demand consultations. It provides affordable access to licensed therapists and 1 million people have already used the confidential service.
CEO and cofounder Oren Frank explains how Phelps approached the company last May after doing due diligence on services he was interested in.
“It really is a labor of love,” says Frank. “Michael does not get paid for his involvement, he’s actually a partner. He wants to be part of what we’re doing and not just a paid spokesperson.”
Talkspace has certainly seen success in terms of its collaboration with Phelps, with growth in clientele.
“We measure where people come from and many say they saw the Phelps thing,” adds Frank. “We see a very clear before and after and this partnership has been a huge success.”
Phelps recognized he couldn’t handle depression and anxiety on his own and decided to seek help and see a therapist, a decision he credits with helping him save his life.
His mission is to communicate that getting support is a sign of courage, not weakness.
“Open up, talk to your friends, family, teammates,” he says. “And work with a professional therapist.”
Frank notes Phelps makes people think, “If this guy struggles with this and does something to actively counter it, maybe I should do the same.”
“He’s doing an incredible service to everyone he meets and we are able to feel it,” he adds. “You can see the same dedication, commitment and tenacity he used as a swimming champion in how he applies that to mental health.”