Michael Phelps says teen suicide is one of the things that scares him most as a parent: 'That extra weight should never be on anybody's shoulders'

Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, now a father of three, says seeing headlines about teens who've died by suicide scares him.
Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, now a father of three, says seeing headlines about teens who've died by suicide scares him. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

Michael Phelps says he's "obsessed" with his mental health, and for good reason. The 36-year-old former competitive swimmer has spoken openly about everything from contemplating suicide during his days as an Olympic athlete to his diagnosis of depression and ADHD in hopes of inspiring others to be more aware of their own mental health struggles.

"The ups and the downs? I go through them all the time and they just kind of come and go," Phelps says. "It's a part of my everyday life, and I'm always trying to learn more about myself and also how to get through different situations."

Phelps, who has worked with online therapy service Talkspace since 2018, teamed up with the organization for May's Mental Health Awareness Month, promoting its "permission slip" campaign, a program focused on encouraging people to give themselves permission to focus on their mental health by writing down one area it's OK for them to spend time working on.

"This little permission slip — as soon as I saw it, I instantly wrote down 'forgiveness' because that's something I still need to work on," Phelps, who lives in Arizona, tells Yahoo Life. "I need to be myself more. I need to take more self-care more often. Those small things, when you write that — when you write something down — it is so so so much more powerful than we can even imagine."

In fact, working on being his "true authentic self" has been a long-time focus for Phelps, who married former Miss California USA Nicole Johnson in 2016 and has three sons who range in age from 2 to 6. "I always say that if my glass isn't completely filled, how am I supposed to fill everyone else's up?" says Phelps. "I have a wife. I have three kids. It's my job to find ways every day to be my best self."

Among his mantras for maintaining his focus on filling his own cup are, "It's OK to not be OK," and, "Be you," the latter of which he wears on a bracelet as a constant reminder. "It's about being your best self," he says. "I am who I am. I'm not going to change who I am, so it's about finding ways to love myself more."

"For a long time, I looked at myself as an athlete — a swimmer, not a human," he continues. "Now being able to look in the mirror and not just see some kid who wears a pair of goggles and a swimming cap and puts on a swimsuit, but seeing a dad and a husband and a person, that transformation has been incredible."

Phelps also credits some of his fellow athletes with inspiring him to show up as the best version of himself.

"I've gotten to know Kevin Love and Naomi Osaka. I've known Simone Biles for a long time," he says. "Some of these athletes and celebrities who have opened up about their own journeys, for me it's so cool and incredible to watch because number one, I know how hard it is and how challenging it is, and I also know how freeing it is to be able to do it in your own way."

Phelps hopes sharing his story will "save more lives," especially those of young people.

"As a parent, it's scary," Phelps says. "I read about suicides almost every single day. We just had two high-schoolers from a local school here that committed suicide a few weeks ago and as a dad, that scares the hell out of me."

"I just want to be able to give them the tools to understand that it's OK to talk about a struggle or a problem," he explains. "From firsthand experience, I was someone who stuffed things down and compartmentalized for a large chunk of my life and that extra weight should never be on anybody's shoulders."

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

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