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Even Olympic Athletes Struggle with Depression

August 11, 2016

It was January of 2015 when Allison Schmitt hit rock bottom – not that you could guess by looking at her. At just 24-years-old, Schmitt was already a two-time Olympian with six medals under her belt including a gold medal performance in the 200-meter freestyle.

But Schmitt had fallen into a depression following the 2012 Summer Games. After the interviews and celebrations had ended, Schmitt returned to the University of Georgia to continue her collegiate swimming career. Over time, she became increasingly withdrawn, missing classes and practices, and her swimming performances began to fall off. At her lowest point, as she drove to watch her sister play hockey, Schmitt thought of driving off the road and ending her life.

“There are a number of risk factors for mental health issues that are unique to athletes, especially those performing at the highest levels,” said Carrie Pichie, PhD, Director of Ambulatory Services at Natchaug Hospital, a Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network partner. “The intense training and high pressure environment can lead to burn out or social isolation. Their failures, and even successes, are magnified and over time that can impact sense of self and lead to issues like depression and anxiety.”

Eventually, those around Schmitt began to notice the changes in her personality – including her training partner and mentor Michael Phelps, who was fresh out of rehab after a second drunk driving arrest. When Schmitt broke down at a swim meet, Phelps and her training coaches pulled her aside and convinced her to seek treatment. She reluctantly began meeting with a psychologist, but stopped shortly after, partially from feeling ashamed.

“Athletes are associated with strength and perseverance, and they internalize that view,” Pichie said. “They may be less likely to seek treatment because of stigma and concerns over being seen as ‘weak’ or ‘giving up.’”

The true wake-up call came for Schmitt a few months later. On May 5, 2015, Schmitt’s cousin April Bocian took her own life just a week after her 17th birthday. Bocian, like Schmitt, was a stand-out athlete who had been recruited by Division I basketball teams starting her sophomore year.

After Bocian’s death, Schmitt’s outlook on her own depression changed. A few weeks later, she opened up about her struggles in interviews with The Associated Press and The Baltimore Sun. She called for post-Olympic mental health support at a USA Swimming award dinner and shared her story at a Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) leadership conference.

“It’s so powerful when athletes speak out about their struggles,” Pichie said. “They’re in the public eye and role models for so many. It shows people that fighting depression or other issues doesn’t signify weakness, it signifies strength.”

At the 2016 United States Olympic Trials, Schmitt qualified for her third Olympics and was named one of the captains of the U.S. swim team. Just this week, she swam on both the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle relays to earn her seventh and eighth medals.

"Me as a 17-year-old, me as an 18-year-old, me as a 20-year-old, didn't know how precious life is,” said Schmitt during her speech at the MHSAA leadership conference. “I thought I was invincible… We always need some help. I'm still asking for help. I still have to go see a psychologist. If any outsider sees me, they think life's perfect…  But if you look at it, everybody's got their own struggles.”

To read more about Schmitt and her story, visit http://es.pn/2aSROf5.

For more information and resources on depression and other mental health issues, visit https://hhcbehavioralhealth.org/health-wellness/health-resources.