COVID CHRONICLES 05/20/20
Mental Health in the Pandemic
Part 1 of 3 — You Are Not Alone
Mental health is a topic that’s been simmering for some time as a potential Chronicles post. I waited so long in part because it’s so personal, I want to be circumspect about what I share. In part I waited because it’s such a complex topic, it requires more than a single post to cover it. In part I waited because, when I’ve woken up each day, something else has seemed more pressing to write about.
But a headline from yesterday lingered in my mind through today. A quick Google search on the topic led to a dozen recent and relevant items, along with the information that May is Mental Health Month. So, apparently today is a good day to start talking about mental health.
Before I do, let me share one of my passions. You’ll get the tie-in, I assure you.
On Being a Swimmer
I started competitive swimming at age 10 and continued through high school. I swam recreationally through college and grad school, then was a master’s swimmer for a steady 15 years or so. After starting and stopping my workouts over the next period of time, in recent years, I lost my swimming habit altogether. But I’ve never stopped thinking of myself as a swimmer. Swimming is easy on my knees, I find it to be of meditative as well as aerobic value, and I’m good at it. Nothing like a pandemic to make me recommit!
I played other sports. But swimming was “my thing.” To be an excellent swimmer, you need to be able to deal with repetition, monotony, and spending a lot of time with yourself. That’s for the obvious reason that you can’t really talk much during workouts since your mouth is either in the water or gulping air. As a result, elite swimmers are not necessarily the most adept in social situations. Let me be clear that NO ONE ever referred to ME personally as “elite”…
Once every four years, for two weeks in the summer, my sport is in the spotlight of the “Games of the Summer Olympiad.” I distinctly remember the summer of 1976, when McDonalds held an Olympic Medals game. You got a scratch off card with an event. If the U.S won Bronze in that event, you got a free drink. If we won Silver, you got free french fries. Gold got you a Big Mac.
Imagine my sheer joy at getting the 100m butterfly, knowing how strong the U.S. team was in that event. In fact, Matt Vogel, Joe Bottom and Gary Hall Sr. SWEPT Gold, Silver and Bronze. I proudly turned in my ticket for a free Big Mac AND fries AND a drink. That meal tasted like …VICTORY.
Flash forward to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The U.S. Olympic Swim Team practiced at Stanford University before heading to the Games. There was only one day of practice open to the public, and my wife and I rode our bikes over to campus with our six and three-year-old sons. I was used to seeing Stanford swimmers around the pool all the time (including Jenny Thompson, Dara Torres and Misty Hyman that summer). But from that particular day, I have three distinct memories:
- Watching backstrokers Lenny Krayzelburg and Aaron Peirsol work out in the pool. Lenny won Gold in the 100m and 200m at the Games, and Aaron won Silver in the 200m.
- Seeing sprinter Gary Hall Jr. strutting his stuff in his tiny Speedo on the deck (it was his dad who’d won me the Mickie D’s drink 24 years prior). Gary never got in the water the whole time we were there, but he sure did flex a lot. You could feel his ego from where we stood. At the Games, Hall tied for gold in the 50m freestyle, won bronze in the 100m freestyle race and won gold and silver as part of relays.
- Over in the corner out of the way was someone doing V-ups. See below for illustration. I kept glancing over. He didn’t stop for 20 MINUTES. Look again at the picture. Up and down, one. Up and down, two. For twenty freaking minutes! That was 15-year-old Michael Phelps, the youngest male to make a U.S. Olympic swim team in 68 years. It was the only one of his Olympics where he didn’t medal. But from that moment on, I was a HUGE fan.
The Great But Tormented Michael Phelps
You remember this guy. Holds the record for the most Olympics medals won by any athlete at 28, including 23 gold medals and 13 individual golds. First American male swimmer to earn a spot on five Olympic teams. Made history as the oldest individual gold medalist in Olympic swimming history at the age of 28. Set 39 world records, the most of all time. I can wax poetic about this man’s swimming prowess for ages.
You likely also encountered Phelps’s ubiquitous presence endorsing Under Armour, Omega, Master Spas and Visa (to name a few) that peaked every four years, along with the trail of misadventures that followed Phelps around — from a DWI at age 19, to a photo of Phelps mid-bong hit that went viral in 2009 and led to a three month suspension, to a second DWI in 2014.
Hopefully you also remember that in the weeks before the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Phelps shared his mental health issues publicly for the first time in an ESPN The Magazine article that described his coming to terms with his personal demons after his second arrest in 2014.
“After years, and years, and years of just shoving every negative, bad feeling down to the point where I mean, I just didn’t even feel it anymore,” he explained. “It was a long, long, long road and I just never wanted to deal with it. And for me, that sent me down a spiral staircase real quick and like I said, I found myself in a spot where I didn’t want to be alive anymore.”
Phelps credits finally being able to talk about what he had been storing away as ultimately saving his life.
“You know, for me, I basically carried just about every negative emotion you can possibly carry along for 15, 20 years and I never talked about it. And I don’t know why that one day I decided to just open up. But since that day it’s just been so much easier to live and so much easier to enjoy life and it’s something I’m very thankful for,” he explained.
As part of the TODAY appearance, Phelps announced he was launching a mental health campaign in partnership with Talkspace, which helps connect those in need with therapists online.
Flash forward to yesterday and the headline that stuck with me: “Michael Phelps opens up about the toll COVID-19 has taken on his mental health.” The headline was a news story about an interview Phelps did on an ESPN broadcast the night before. On ESPN.com the headline accompanying the video interview and related story was blunter: “Michael Phelps: ‘This is the most overwhelmed I’ve ever felt’.” Here’s the video interview.
Phelps opens up about his mental health during pandemic - ESPN Video
Michael Phelps tells Jeremy Schaap what it's been like to battle depression during this pandemic and what is says to…
Here’s the opening of Phelps’ first person narrative from the accompanying ESPN.com story.
How are you?
We are asked that question every day. But how often do we just say “fine” or “good” and move on? How often do we actually admit the truth — to ourselves as well as others?
You want to know my truth? How am I doing? How am I handling quarantine and the global pandemic? Put it this way: I’m still breathing.
It has been one of those months. Nonstop, my mood jumping up and down and all around. The pandemic has been one of the scariest times I’ve been through. I’m thankful that my family and I are safe and healthy. I’m grateful we don’t have to worry about paying bills or putting food on the table, like so many other folks right now. But still, I’m struggling.
Before the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, I shared my mental health issues publicly for the first time. It wasn’t easy to admit I wasn’t perfect. But opening up took a huge weight off my back. It made life easier. Now I’m opening up again. I want people to know they’re not alone. So many of us are fighting our mental health demons now more than ever.
The thing is — and people who live with mental health issues all know this — it never goes away. You have good days and bad. But there’s never a finish line. I’ve done so many interviews after Rio where the story was the same: Michael Phelps opened up about depression, went into a treatment program, won gold in his last Olympics and now is all better. I wish that were the truth. I wish it were that easy. But honestly — and I mean this in the nicest way possible — that’s just ignorant. Somebody who doesn’t understand what people with anxiety or depression or post-traumatic stress disorder deal with has no idea.”
Phelps goes on to explain how he is coping. As he says, he knows he’s far from alone, and wants to use his example to help others. What a wonderful role model!
The Burgeoning Mental Health Crisis
Last week, the United Nations issued a Policy Brief, COVID-19 and the Need for Action on Mental Health. In an accompanying statement, UN Secretary-General António Guterres argues that Mental health services are an essential part of all government responses to COVID-19.
A Forbes article from yesterday, The Other COVID-19 Crisis: Declining Mental Health, also highlights the urgency, focusing on the workplace:
The entire world is focused on the fierce urgency of defeating the COVID-19 virus as it wreaks havoc on human health and economies the world over. If we are not careful, however, we will miss a pressing health crisis lying just beneath the surface of COVID-19 — the decline of mental health. Doctors and nurses are on the front lines of the physical health crisis. Managers must be on the front lines of the mental health crisis.
It’s no surprise that coverage of the mental health consequences of the pandemic are only now gaining traction. After all, the stigma and misunderstanding around mental health issues are rampant in our society in the best of times. As Phelps and others step out and up to publicly address their own struggles, it can only help raise visibility, awareness and compassion about this largely invisible crisis.
- In Part 2 I’ll address what help and resources are available from those suffering from depression, anxiety and other symptoms that may have been triggered or intensified in reaction to the pandemic.
- In Part 3 I’ll bust some mental health myths and correct some misunderstandings.