“It is okay to not be okay.” If you learn anything during the month of May – Mental Health Awareness Month – remember those words. Depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia – they are all illnesses, and they are nothing to be ashamed of. If you or someone you know is hurting, it is okay to ask for and get help. Find the courage to ask for it. After all, “courage is contagious.”
Mental illness can affect anyone and no matter how tough, successful, or strong you are, mental illness can affect you.
“Life is tough. It is tough for everyone.” That is what Michael Phelps, the GOAT, Greatest of All Time, told a packed crowd of mental health professionals and swim fans last week as he and Allison Schmitt kicked off National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day at SAMHSA’s “Partnering for Help and Hope” event at George Washington University.
“The struggles I had weren’t easy,” Phelps said. Although he seemed on top of the world on the outside, on the inside, he was hurting. He said he pushed everything down, “compartmentalizing” the parts that hurt, those things that he did not want to address. He found himself at an all-time low – likely referring to his DUI arrest. “It was at that time I decided I needed help,” he remarked. He was lucky to have a support system of family, friends, and coaches who stood by him and encouraged him to get treatment. They remained by his side through treatment, and Phelps emerged stronger than ever. Anyone watching Phelps’ performance at the 2016 Rio Olympics could see he was not only physically prepared, but mentally healthy as well. Mental health matters.
Allison Schmitt is one of the friends that helped Phelps during his low moments. She acknowledges Phelps as being there for her as well when she was quietly struggling and isolated. In “Out of the Blue,” an ESPN article by Bonnie Ford, we learn that after feeling on top of the world during the London Olympics, Allison began to lose herself to depression. It is common for athletes to have post-success depression and isolation, but Allison did not think it could happen to her. She always smiled and was surrounded by a great support system. After competition, she went back to the University of Georgia, but began skipping classes and shutting people out of her life. She did not feel like herself, but like many top-level athletes, felt she could handle everything on her own. It was Phelps who understood and noticed something was not right. Having dealt with depression and ADHD himself, he encouraged Allison to get help. Around the same time, Schmitt’s cousin April, with whom she was very close, died by suicide. It was then that Schmitt knew something had to be done. She chose to get help and knew she could use her story and her voice to reach others.
Allison is now devoting herself to teaching others that “it is okay to not be okay.” At the SAMHSA event, she told us that no one should have to be alone in their pain. She wants to be the “hand” that a struggling child can reach out to for support. Allison is proud to help fight the stigma surrounding mental illness and wants to give back; she just completed the first semester towards a Masters in Social Work and Counseling.
Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt are amazing. They are amazing because they have succeeded in the highest level of their sport. But they are also amazing because they asked for help, supported each other, and now are spreading awareness as Heroes of Hope. That takes courage, and “courage is contagious.”
Phelps said, “I encourage everybody to ask for help or just ask to talk.” If you see that your friends or loved ones are hurting, reach out to them. You can make a difference. You, too, can be a Hero of Hope.
Tracy Greenberg has become a strong part of the Sheppard Pratt community. She is mother to Bryce, who attends The Frost School, part of the Sheppard Pratt Health System. She gives her time as part of the Consumer Advisory Council, a group of family members, former patients, former students, and employees of the health system who are dedicated to improving our quality of care and enhancing recovery from mental illness and addiction. Follow along with Tracy through her blog.