This #MentalHealthMatters blog post was written by Lori Weber, founder of NPower Services, an agency that helps integrate people of all abilities into their community. She’s an advocate of Ravenwood Health.

Mental health awareness took the spotlight at the 2021 Summer Olympics when world-class gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of the games for mental health reasons. Michael Phelps, the most decorated swimmer of all time, praised her decision along with her honesty for publicly sharing the reason. Phelps has been an outspoken advocate for acknowledging mental health as a critical component of overall health after contemplating suicide upon battling crippling depression. 

Now that megastars have started talking about their fears and mental health concerns, maybe the rest of us will find it a little easier to admit we’re feeling drained, depressed or unable to cope with outside expectations. Maybe it’ll be OK to tell your family or boss that you need to get help without worrying they’ll think you’re damaged goods. 

Our society is mesmerized by the tangible physical body to the exclusion of the invisible mental one. There’s no problem bringing up your diabetes or heart condition over dinner conversation. But tell someone you have a mental disorder, and you may well wonder if they’ll inch their chair in the opposite direction. There’s a stigma surrounding disabilities that affects the way we act – but can’t be pinpointed to a specific location in the body. So – we just don’t bring them up. 

We keep going to work, putting on a show of normalcy. We tell ourselves to live up to or exceed expectations. Schools demand it with grades and test scores. We compare ourselves to standards we’re afraid of not meeting. It’s never enough to be good enough. And it’s unacceptable to fall short.

Eventually, we feel overwhelmed and cope, often in unproductive or harmful ways. We overeat. We indulge in alcohol. We take pills. We yell at family members and snap at coworkers. Maybe we just don’t feel like getting out of bed anymore.

You know what? Everyone feels like this from time to time. And it’s time that people stop feeling ashamed they have depression or autism or are battling mental dragons that preclude their ability to perform on the job. 

I’ll share my family’s experience with mental health. My husband and I have four adult children, one with autism. This young lady has both amazing artistic talents alongside a confounding inability to express herself as well as other emotional and developmental disorders. On a normal day, conversation can be convoluted and difficult. One bad day can trigger a week’s worth of strained interactions – if any can occur at all. It’s so easy to start blaming people for what seems like bad behavior until the realization sets in that good days don’t just happen. They take practice. Understanding this can take help. A good therapist or coach can provide strategies that take the focus off the problem and put it onto possible solutions. 

Michael Phelps with an in program participant.

But to get to that point, you have to be willing to talk about it. If you are dealing with mental and emotional problems beyond a few days, it may be time to reach out to someone for help. As Phelps says:

“We’re human beings, nobody is perfect. It’s ok to not be ok. It’s ok to go through ups and downs and emotional roller coasters … I felt like I was carrying, as Simone (Biles) said, the weight of the world on my shoulders. It’s a tough situation. … I hope this is an eye-opening experience, I really do. I hope this is an opportunity for us to jump on board and to even blow this mental health thing even more wide open. It is so much bigger than we could even ever imagine. This is something that’s gonna take a lot of time, a lot of hard work and people who are willing to help.”

Although it’s unfortunate that Biles and Phelps struggled with their mental health problems, it’s helpful that they did it on a stage as massive as the Olympics. By being willing to share their own issues, they may be helping other people get comfortable with their own mental health and normalize the conversation around invisible health concerns.

Phelps started the Michael Phelps Foundation (MPF) that helps people overcome fears, face adversity, and set goals. Mental health awareness is part of his mission. Swimming, not surprisingly, is the main tool to help achieve these objectives. Locally, agencies like Ravenwood Health help people move toward a balanced mental state. They’ve helped my family and I’d encourage anyone who needs to address a mental health issue to pick up the phone and ask for help.

She is currently reading NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman, and currently listening to Sea Level.