Olympic Champions Speak out on Mental Health

HHS secretary recognizes Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt for their advocacy at Mental Health Awareness Day event at GW.

Allison Schmitt, HHS Secretary Tom Price and Michael Phelps at Mental Health Awareness Day event at JMA. (Richard Greenhouse Photography)
May 08, 2017

By B.L. Wilson

Olympics swimming icons Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt have acknowledged struggles with depression, sometimes ignoring symptoms until confronted with the devastating consequences of avoidance.

Ms. Schmitt, who has won eight Olympic medals, said she only came to terms with her depression after a cousin’s suicide.

“No person should have to endure internal struggles in pain alone, nor should any family have to mourn the loss of a child they didn’t know was struggling,” she told a packed audience of mental health professionals, scientists, federal workers and others Thursday night at George Washington University’s Jack Morton Auditorium.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price also was on hand for the Mental Health Awareness event, delivering comments on the issue and recognizing the two champion swimmers for their work advocating for mental health treatment.

Mr. Phelps, who set an all-time record of 28 Olympic medals, has talked about reaching a point with his depression where he didn’t want to live.

“For the longest time I was really good at compartmentalizing and just pushing it deeper and deeper so I never had to deal with it,” he said. “That brought me to a point in my life where I found myself at an all-time low.”

After undergoing treatment and being suspended from the U.S. Olympics team because of a driving under the influence charge, Mr. Phelps came back to win five gold medals and one silver in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

Both served as honorary chairpersons of Partnering for Help and Hope, a Mental Health Awareness Day event sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Mr. Price presented them with the 2017 SAMSHA special recognition award for pushing for mental health treatment to be part of overall wellness.

“Michael’s and Allison’s stories are so important to hear,” Mr. Price said, “because they prove that mental illness impacts people of all backgrounds and all walks of life, even those who appear to have it all, supportive friend groups, loving family and professional success.”

He said most adults and adolescents struggling with mental illness in the U.S. fail to get the treatment and services they need.

“This is a tragedy none of us should be willing to tolerate. No American should suffer in silence or in shame,” he said.

Mr. Price said his three priorities as the head of HHS will be tackling serious mental illness, childhood obesity and drug addiction and substance abuse. He said President Donald Trump has begun the process of appointing a new assistant secretary of mental health, a brand new position within the department that will elevate the importance of these issues.

Integrating behavioral health care and primary care, especially in children and adolescents, was the focus of the evening that featured three panels of mental health experts and advocates, physicians, other health care providers and families who have struggled with mental illness.

SAMSHA released a new report on National Mental Health Awareness Day that shows that major depressive episodes are more common among children 12 to 17 who have asthma, diabetes or are obese than those who do not have those conditions.

Even when physicians in a primary care setting identify a child with a mental health problem, access to specialists can be difficult because of a lack of experts or long waiting lists.

Lisa Cullins, a psychiatrist at the Children’s National Medical Center, said even when a mental health issue has been identified, there can be a delay of eight to 10 years before it is actually treated. She said it’s estimated the country needs 33,000 child psychiatrists. There are currently only 9,000.

Mr. Phelps said in his case he benefited from having a coach who “acted almost as a parent.”

“Every little small thing we paid attention to it. We were in it for the long run,” he said.

Ms. Schmitt is working toward earning a master’s degree in social work and counseling and is looking forward to continuing “destigmatizing mental health.”


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