Mental illness doesn’t discriminate: sports stars share their stories



Missy Franklin with the freshman Lady Utes at PAC 12s 2015.

In a sports conference for young women called LEAD Summit held in Austin, TX, Missy Franklin opened up about her struggles with mental illness. For those who don’t follow the Olympics, Missy is a five-time gold medalist and swimming superstar. At the summit, she was asked to talk about perseverance.

She said her favorite definition for perseverance was “steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.” In a “Gold Medal Minute” video produced by Mel Stewart, two-time gold medalist and founder of, he interviewed Missy. I urge you to take the time to listen to what Missy has to say and the journey she shares. As Stewart described it, “Missy went deep sharing some raw and personal history. Two months before the Olympic Trials last year, Missy was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, insomnia and an eating disorder when she was hitting a low while sports fans and the world were expecting her to rise up.”


Missy explains how her definition of perseverance has changed from 2012, 2013, and 2014 when she said it was “shallow.” She thought perseverance was coming out at the other end successful and that at that time in her life “everything came with so much ease.”

She has some poignant words about success and what it means to her. “Your Definition of success is going to change and you need to let it,” Missy said. “That is the only definition that matters because you’re constantly going to have people in your life telling you what it means to be successful. And that is different for every single person. If you’re not striving for your own version of success, you’re never going to be happy or fulfilled.”

To find out more about LEAD Summit visit their website. “Founded in 2017 by 3-time Olympian Kara Lynn Joyce, the LEAD (Leadership, Empowerment, & Athletic Development) Sports Summit provides teenage female swimmers ages, 13-18, the opportunity to learn leadership and communication skills from an accomplished group of female Olympians and mentors over the course of a three-day summit.”

In an article from the Salt Lake Tribune called, “There’s always help’: Whittingham’s son praised for going public about his depression,” the head coach of the University of Utah football team Kyle Whittingham talks about how proud he is of his son, who plays football for the Utes. Here are a few excerpts.

“There were years of pain and anguish as he (Alex Whittingham) dealt with the effects of anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). “Fighting through a storm cloud” is how he described it. And that cloud was on the 24-year-old’s mind this summer when he opened up an application on his iPhone and decided to open up to the world.Screen Shot 2017-09-13 at 1.22.16 PM

“Kyle Whittingham’s son is many things. He is a goofball around his friends and teammates. He is a drummer in a rock band. He is a self-proclaimed Beatles trivia expert. But he is generally not a public person, so his decision to share his story took his father aback.

“ ‘That was a little out of character for him,’ Kyle Whittingham said. ‘He’s a fairly private person, and that did surprise me. It caught me a little bit off guard when he did that, but, like I said, he has very strong convictions, and obviously, that was something he felt like he needed to do.’

“The choice made the father proud.

“Kyle calls them ‘hard times’ for the Whittingham family. The moments when a parent is helpless and can’t provide the absolute most for his or her child are the ones that don’t ever disappear.

“ ‘As a parent, you’re only as happy as your most unhappy child,’ Whittingham said. ‘That old adage is very true. You go through it right there with him. You feel the pain. It’s hard, it’s frustrating.’ ”

In USA Today, an article called “When athletes share their battles with mental illness” written by Scott Gleeson and Erik Brady, they interview eight sports stars including Jerry West, Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt.


Michael Phelps with local high school swimmers at a banquet where he was the keynote speaker.



“Michael Phelps locked himself in his bedroom for four days three years ago. He’d been arrested a second time for DUI. He was despondent and adrift. He thought about suicide.

“I didn’t want to be alive,” he tells USA TODAY Sports. “I didn’t want to see anyone else. I didn’t want to see another day.”

“Family and friends — “a life-saving support group,” Phelps calls them — urged him to seek professional help. He got it. And now he wants others who are suffering from mental health issues to find the help they need.

“Some will scoff at this. Phelps is the golden boy of the Olympic Games. Fame and fortune are his. Really, what could be so bad in his life?

“That is never the right question. People from all walks of life suffer from a range of mental illnesses. Roughly 44 million Americans experienced some form of mental illness in 2015 (the most recent year for which numbers are available), according to estimates by the National Institute of Mental Health. That’s nearly one in five people aged 18 or over.”

After reading and listening to the stories of these athletes, I wondered if athletics is somehow connected to mental illness. According to the article in USA Today it is.

“Athletes may be at increased risk, according to research by Lynette Hughes and Gerard Leavey of the Northern Ireland Association of Mental Health, who found that factors such as injuries, competitive failure and overtraining can lead to psychological distress. An NCAA survey of athletes found over the course of a year that 30% reported feeling depressed while half said they experienced high levels of anxiety.

“Brent Walker, associate athletic director for championship performance at Columbia University, says he didn’t want to deal with the mental health side of performance when he began working in the field. Now, he says, “it is difficult to separate the mental health piece from the performance side of it.”

In my own family, we have struggled with mental illness, including my mother and several other family members. One of the concerns with mental illness is to alleviate stigma. People may not reach out for needed help because they’re afraid of what people will think of them. I am so moved by reading the stories of young and old athletes alike who are in the public eye and sharing their stories. They may not know it, but they are helping and touching someone. We need to understand that depression is not something that a person “can snap out of” and it’s not caused by being weak.

What are your thoughts of these athletes making their struggles with mental illness public?





4 thoughts on “Mental illness doesn’t discriminate: sports stars share their stories

  1. Fascinating to me that I should find your article today. As I was running this morning, I was pondering about athletes and mental illness. I am a family physician turned trauma therapist (most of my clients are adults who had very unhealthy families growing up). As a lifelong athlete (of the mere mortal variety) I’ve also had a longtime interest in sports medicine and some of my current therapy work is with sports performance.
    Enough about me. What I was thinking about as I was running and not feeling particularly comfortable, is about how athletes often disconnect from their pain, either physical or emotional, and focus on outcome and goals. This ability to ignore pain can be helpful in “pushing through” to a new level of achievement, and at the same time, I am increasingly suspicious that this disconnect leads to trouble down the road.
    We see this with professional athletes a lot, with broken brains and bodies currently getting a lot of press, particularly traumatic encephalopathy. What about all the other athletes, either in non-marquee sports or those who work hard and are “journeyman”. My experience with many I’ve known or read about over the years is that there is a lot of pain in there, and often a bewilderment or inability to deal with it that is surprising when earlier, they could deal with anything and “triumph”.
    How do they work on other, ordinary problems. That depression, anxiety and substance abuse are so common speaks to a skill that many athletes don’t develop. They are busy developing their athletic skills, school, etc, and some of the other stuff gets missed, and then the challenge is to fill in their gaps (happens to everyone in one way or another). I think it can be particularly challenging for athletes, who are accustomed to excelling and not accustomed to having a hard time and finding their way through.

    Thanks for writing, and this is an important issue

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. As the mother of a college student-athlete, I’m hearing more and more stories about young adults, mostly athletes, suffering from panic attacks, anxiety and depression. I’m very proud of these super stars who publicly tell their stories. It must have a positive impact for their lesser known peers to get help, too.

      • Yes, I agree with you. When a role model can also model how to deal with the painful and difficult parts of life, it helps. The more we can see athletes and other “celebrities ” as multifaceted complex individuals, much like ourselves, the more then we can also allow ourselves to deal with our stuff. Hope your student athlete has a good experience. A swimmer, I think?

  2. I believe you’re right. Yes, my daughter is a swimmer. She’s a senior and she’s transitioning into her full focus and identity as a swimmer to other areas of her life. As you said, she’s realizing that she is a multi-faceted and complex individual. My son swam for years also and decided his interests were in academics and music and decided against swimming in college. Thanks for your comments.

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