Michael Phelps on the pandemic’s impact on mental health struggles: ‘It honestly destroys me’

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

The swimmer, who has spoken openly about his his struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, says he’s seen “too many articles” about suicide during the pandemic. Most recently, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, made headlines when she spoke publicly about her past suicidal ideation.

“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,” he told USA TODAY 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 said 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 said. “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.”

He also noted that sharing how you are feeling can be difficult but important.

“Getting our thoughts and feelings out in the open is something that changed my life,” he said. “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.”

He also thinks stars coming forward with these issues can help break down 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 said. “That’s something that’s been very challenging, still to this day I think it’s hard.”

He said coming forward with his struggles helped him learn and 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.”

And just like his mental health, his physical health hasn’t taken a backseat during the pandemic. Phelps first 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 5, 6 days… usually 7 days a week of some kind of working out,” he said, lifting weights, elliptical, 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 said. “They’re constantly on the go.”

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

“Whenever I get out of a routine, I kind of spiral,” he said, 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 said.

He and his wife Nicole Johnson have also 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 said. “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.”

Similar to a “lion breath,” Phelps said the pandemic forced him to take a step back.

“I honestly do feel that it almost was a blessing for me,” he said, 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 may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online.

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

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