Have you ever heard someone suggest that ‘Depressed people are lazy, and they just need to toughen up’? Not only can such statements be extremely hurtful, but evidence flies in the face of such thinking.
Case in point: Olympic athlete Michael Phelps’s battle with depressive symptoms and suicidality. One thing that makes his story so compelling is that he is a record-breaking gold medalist whose training undoubtedly requires tremendous focus and dedication, and who most people would certainly not consider to be ‘weak’ or ‘lazy’.
In recent years, he has opened up about his experiences (1, 2). Let’s take a look at what he has shared, and how this might relate to mental health more broadly:
- He cited social support as an important factor which helped him realize that suicide was not a good solution. My clinical experience has shown me that people with depression often tend to isolate themselves. Low mood seems to say ‘just stay in bed, cocoon yourself under the warm covers, things will seem quieter and safer there, and you won’t have to struggle to expend energy interacting with people or doing activities.’ Sometimes people feel like they would be burdening others with their problems, or that others won’t understand what they are going through. But the reality is that isolating ourselves from the people who truly care about us can contribute to further worsening our mood, resulting in a vicious cycle where low mood makes us want to isolate ourselves, which in turn can contribute to further lowering of our mood. And ironically, sometimes the periods when our mood is lowest and our inclination to confide or socialize is plummeting can actually be among the most important times to do the opposite and reach out.
- He reported having been critical or disappointed with himself when he did not beat a certain world record. This suggests that he may have had a focus on outcome goals, where the motivation is tied to the result (e.g. winning a competition), as opposed to process goals where the focus is on the steps involved (e.g. hard work, love of learning) (3). This may have left him feeling like a failure when he did not achieve his desired outcome. Indeed, some research has found that process goals can have certain advantages, including more enjoyment (4). I’ve often heard clients say things like ‘I’ll be happy when I achieve x goal / when I hit x milestone / when x is over’, but as clinical sports psychologist Kristen Keim noted, it is important to take pleasure in the process and in the moment (5).
- He reported that his sense of self-worth declined after he retired from swimming. Sports psychologist Dr. Goldman noted that equating identity with sport can lead some athletes to lose their sense of self (5). It can be very risky to put all of your eggs in one basket by linking your sense of self-worth to anyone area of life (be it academic performance, romantic relationships, or physical appearance) because of the negative ramifications for mood and/or self-esteem when we don’t perform as well as we would have liked in that area, or when our involvement in that area diminishes. As such, some therapies encourage clients to develop and value multiple domains of life (6).
- He noted that he had not reflected on his accomplishments along the way. Perhaps it is surprising that someone who has won so many gold medals during his career would not have already reflected on his successes. But many of us can relate to being focused on getting things done; it can feel like we are running on a treadmill that is going so fast that we struggle to keep up and to catch our breath, making it a real challenge to focus on the present moment and to practice mindfulness. See my colleague Natsumi’s blogpostto learn more about mindful awareness and how you can begin to incorporate it (7).
- He was initially reluctant to get help, and anxious about the idea of change. Some people think – if you’re not doing well, you should jump at the chance to feel better, right? In reality, things often aren’t that simple. In many ways, we are creatures of habit, and we often find comfort in familiarity, even if that familiarity isn’t ideal. The idea of some unknown change can feel risky or scary, and people may wonder if they are capable of change, if that change will be sustainable, or if they will be fundamentally different people when their depressive symptoms have improved. These are all valid questions; make sure to raise them with your therapist if they are of concern to you.
- Having benefitted from treatment, he went on to raise awareness and develop a foundation aimed at promoting stress management for youth. Although not everyone will have their own foundation, some people are eventually able to make meaning or see the silver lining in their experience, for instance, by noting that their own struggles have improved their ability to empathize with others and to demonstrate self-compassion.
Bottom line: Struggling with depression does not make someone weak or lazy. And the wide variety of people coming forward about their own experiences demonstrates that very accomplished, hard-working and motivated individuals can struggle with mental health problems. Michael Phelps’s experience illustrates this point well, as well as the importance of factors like social support, motivation, self-worth, and mindfulness in mental health.