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Make Mental Health a Priority, Olympian Michael Phelps Urges

Johnny C. Taylor Jr. and Michael Phelps sitting in chairs on stage at the SHRM conference.

​LAS VEGAS — "The hardest thing to understand is you can't just put your mental health on a timeout," according to world champion swimmer Michael Phelps.

Widely regarded as one of the greatest athletes of all time and an outspoken advocate for mental wellness, Phelps talked about his own struggles during a conversation with Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, at the Sept. 10 general session of the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021.

Phelps, who became a professional athlete at age 15, won 28 Olympic medals—23 of them gold—during four Olympics and set 39 world records. But he struggled outside of the pool. At one point, his depression was so severe, he said, that he didn't want to live any longer.

Today, he is a vocal advocate of therapy, which he credits with saving his life, and the importance of asking for help. His work includes serving as an executive producer of the HBO Sports documentary "The Weight of Gold," which features interviews with Olympians such as skier Bode Miller, figure skater Sasha Cohen and diver David Boudia talking about the mental health challenges Olympians often face.

The film comes during a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly exacerbated mental health issues.

"There are other people struggling just as much or more than [me], and we're supposed to be the most prepared," he said of himself and fellow athletes. "I wanted to do whatever I could to help."

His Michael Phelps Foundation is devoted to water safety and mental health, and its work has garnered recognition from groups such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, PRWeek and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. 

"As a male athlete, I always thought it was a sign of weakness if I showed I was being vulnerable. It's not weakness," he said. "If we're injured, they're going to fix our broken bones, but if we're mentally struggling, we have to get help and we have to get it in safe places."

Taylor noted that employees often have difficulty accessing tools and funding for mental wellness assistance.

"We allow people to see a medical professional," Taylor said. "We're not so generous with mental health offerings. You get three [insurance-covered] visits" and a sentiment that amounts to " 'I hope you're well by then. If not, come back next year,' " he noted. "What do we do? If we lose any of our colleagues, we've failed."

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Mental Health

Suffering from burnout, depression or the pressures of work is not limited to athletes, whose mental state can affect their physical safetyHealth care workers and teachers are leaving their positions in droves, citing burnout from the COVID-19 crisis.

A SHRM survey in March found nearly half of 578 U.S. workers said they feel mentally and physically exhausted by the end of the workday.

World champion swimmer Michael PhelpsPhelps actively supports Talkspace, a digital behavioral tool that offers different forms of therapy, such as through text and video chats. But it comes down to a willingness to seek help.

"It probably was one of the hardest things I ever did," Phelps said of seeking help after his second arrest for driving under the influence. "I checked myself into a 45-day facility, and it was a lifesaver."

He applauded U.S. gymnast Simone Biles for her courage in prioritizing her mental health. She shocked the world when she withdrew from competing in several of the 2021 Olympic events in which she was expected to medal.

"I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being," Biles said at the time. "It just sucks when you're fighting with your own head."

Some questioned her decision. Phelps noted that just as athletes know the limits and abilities of their bodies, they also know the limits and abilities of their mental health.

"She's competing in the biggest moment, the biggest stage [of the world], and it just pops up," he said of anxiety and other mental health issues. "That's the way it is."

In his introduction, Taylor noted that the U.S. culture has long stigmatized mental health issues.

"It's a serious problem for our families, our communities and our workplaces," he said and called upon HR and business leaders to lead a movement that makes mental and physical health a standard business practice. "We want and need all of our employees to realize their full potential, physically and mentally."

Following Phelps' appearance, Taylor announced a new Workplace Mental Health Ally Certificate program for HR professionals. The certificate is the culmination of an eight-module course that SHRM and the SHRM Foundation created in partnership with Psych Hub.


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