WASHINGTON — Allison Schmitt hates public speaking. But the Olympic swimmer shared her story of battling depression in a packed auditorium Thursday night as part of National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day.
“I get sweaty hands; I feel like I’m going to throw up. I never want to speak in front of people,” said Schmitt, the eight-time Olympic medalist. “When it comes to mental health, I love it. A whole new me comes out. I think it’s because I’m so passionate about it. I can speak from the heart and I really want to spread the word that it’s OK not to be OK. I want to spread the message that it’s OK to ask for help.”
Schmitt and Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time with 28 medals, were chairpersons of the event, which was hosted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at George Washington University.
The year before the 2016 Rio Olympics, Schmitt opened up about her depression publicly during interviews with the Associated Press and the Baltimore Sun. She was devastated by the death of her younger cousin, April Bocian, who committed suicide a week after her 17th birthday.
“It hit home for me to see what her family went through,” Schmitt said. “It also hit home to know that she was in such a dark place and so isolated and felt so alone inside. It wasn’t fair of her to be going through that as well.”
Neither cousin knew that the other was battling depression, Schmitt said.
She has undergone therapy with a psychologist and has become an advocate for mental health issues. Phelps and Schmitt say they hope others who are struggling will be encouraged to seek help after hearing their stories.
Removing the stigma of talking about mental health is important, Schmitt says.
“Mental illness is something you deal with every day, just because you go to a psychologist, just because you’re feeling better one day doesn’t mean it’s gone; doesn’t mean you’re healed,” she said. “It’s something you have and you live with the rest of your life. Learning ways to cope with it, learning ways to live with it is what we do.”
Phelps said he battled depression at three different stages after returning home from competing in the Olympics.
“For me getting to an all-time low where I didn’t want to be alive anymore, that’s scary as hell,” he said. “Thinking about taking your own life, I remember sitting in my room for four or five days not wanting to be alive, not talking to anybody. That was a struggle for me. … For me, I reached that point where I finally realized I couldn’t do it alone.”
Phelps and Schmitt are good friends who lean on each other. Phelps recalled the drives home from training when they’d work through things just by talking it out. Schmitt lives with Phelps and his wife, Nicole, and their son, Boomer, in Arizona.
After retiring from competition last year, Phelps has been busy working with his foundation and getting involved in causes that are important to him.
One of his goals is to “help as many people as I can,” Phelps said.
“I want to be able to get out in front and talk and say look, yes I’ve done these great things in the pool, but I’m also a human,” he said. “I’m also a human like some of the people in this world who are going through the same exact struggles that I have. I want people to understand that there are times that you are going to have to reach out.”