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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 September 2018

Olympics hero Michael Phelps says it is OK to seek help to treat mental illness

Most successful Olympian of all time talks about anxiety and depression during and after Games

Michael Phelps won 23 gold medals over four Olympic Games. Lee Jin-man / AP Photo
Michael Phelps won 23 gold medals over four Olympic Games. Lee Jin-man / AP Photo

Swimming hero Michael Phelps revealed that he has battled severe anxiety and depression for much of his life which drove him to consider suicide after his success at the 2012 Olympics.

Speaking at a mental health conference in Chicago on Tuesday, the 23-time Olympic gold medal winner talked openly about his long battle with crippling depression and is encouraging others to get help like he did.

"After every Olympics I think I fell into a major state of depression," Phelps, 32, said.

Phelps said he reached rock bottom following the 2012 Olympics in London where he won four gold medals and two silver. For four days he remained in his room without food or sleep.

"I didn't want to be in the sport anymore," he said. "I didn't want to be alive."

When he hit a low point in his depression, Phelps said, "You do contemplate suicide."

Over the past two years Phelps has opened up about his struggles. Once again, Phelps said his depression and anxiety problems have been a staple of his life for the past 17 years.

"We're supposed to be this big, macho, physically strong human beings, but this is not a weakness," he said. "We are seeking and reaching for help."

Phelps won his first gold medal in 2004 at the Athens Olympic Games. That same year the 15-year-old boy from Baltimore experienced his first "depression spell".

Phelps said as he got older his depression led to his abusing drugs and alcohol.

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In 2008, after winning a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Games, Phelps was arrested twice for drink driving.

"It would be just me self-medicating myself, basically daily, to try to fix whatever it was that I was trying to run from," he said.

Phelps is not the first Olympic national hero to battle dark demons outside the pool.

Australian Ian Thorpe, who broke 22 world records, wrote in his 2012 autobiography that not only did he consider suicide but he planned ways and places to do it in.

Like Phelps, Thorpe chose to "self-medicate" with alcohol to try and manage his vicious mood swings and silence the horrible thoughts going through his head.

In an interview with CNN this week, Phelps said he wants to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness.

"[Mental illness] has a stigma around it and that's something we still deal with every day," Phelps said. "I think people actually finally understand it is real. People are talking about it and I think this is the only way that it can change."

Phelps retired after the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio as the most decorated Olympian of all time, winning 28 Olympics medals.

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