Washington, D.C. - Team USA swimmers Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt, two of the world's most decorated athletes, already have about all the hardware their necks can handle. Yet, the pair received a couple more accolades Thursday night at George Washington University during National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day, hosted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. These ones needed no lanyards.
An "intimidated" Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price presented the athletes with awards for their work combatting mental illness. He marveled at their "superhuman" skills, yet noted that their careers have not always been rosy.
"But at the very same moment that the world was marveling at their extraordinary athletic feats, they were privately battling depression," Price said.
Their stories have happy endings, Price continued. The swimmers reached out for help, beat their mental illness, and have since become very vocal advocates for the cause.
"We know their stories because they had the courage and the confidence to tell the world," Price said.
HHS Secretary Tom Price presents Olympic swimmers Allison Schmitt and Michael Phelps awards for helping to combat mental illness.
An emotional Schmitt explained why this award was more meaningful to her than her medals.
“Out of all the awards I’ve received in my life, I’m most honored to receive this award,” she said. “When I chose to speak out about my mental health struggles, my only goal was to save one life. No person should have to endure internal struggles and pain alone. Nor, should any family have to mourn the loss of a child they didn’t know was struggling."
For Schmitt, Phelps proved to be a major part of her support system. She was struggling with depression and feelings of failure during her Rio training, but a conversation she had with her fellow swimmer in January 2015 helped change her point of view.
"Thank you Michael for being that lending hand for hope and help," she said, turning to him.
Phelps, Schmitt discuss the importance of taking care of both mind and body.
Phelps, who also suffered from depression in between Olympics - an episode he's made very public - accepted his award with similar candor.
"The struggles that I have had weren’t easy and they weren’t fun, but they’re part of my journey," he shared. "For the longest time I was really good at compartmentalizing things and just pushing them deeper and deeper so I never had to deal with them. That brought me to a point in my life where I found myself at an all time low. It was then I finally decided that I needed help. Life is tough and it’s tough for everyone. As I look back at my journey I’m so thankful for the support that I’ve had."
Both Olympians urged listeners to seek help if they're struggling.
"Communication is so big and it’s sometimes that we make it a lot bigger than it really is," Phelps said. "This is something that we all have the power to change and we can make a difference."
The Trump administration is currently trying to tackle mental health-related illnesses, Price told the audience Thursday. For instance, the president is assembling a presidential commission to better tackle the opioid crisis and is working on appointing an assistant secretary of mental health, a brand new position in HHS.