Decorated Olympian to speak about depression in city

March 4, 2017

It might have been easy to feel on top of the world, winning five Olympic medals – three gold, one silver and one bronze.

Swimmer Allison Schmitt was getting plenty of compliments in 2012 on her award-winning performance in one of the world’s most-watched competitions.

She was grateful for the success, but something just wasn’t right. And Schmitt – to this day – can exactly pinpoint why.

One thing Schmitt knows, though, is she was depressed. She also knows mental health issues aren’t comfortable conversation in most circles.

“I think it’s always the white elephant in the room,” Schmitt said in a telephone interview this week.

Despite the tendency to avoid those discussions, Schmitt thinks everyone deals with a mental health issue “at some point in their life.”

She is scheduled to speak Tuesday in Fort Wayne for “Healing Our Community with Hope: Part 2,” a free event co-sponsored by The Lutheran Foundation and the University of Saint Francis. More than 1,500 people participated last year.

Schmitt’s message for this year’s gathering is simple: “It’s OK to not be OK, but it’s also OK to ask for help.”

Schmitt has a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology from the University of Georgia. She lives in the Phoenix area, where she is taking classes from Arizona State University toward a master’s degree in social work, expected to lead into counseling.

“With Allison’s perspective on mental health and how it affects young people, she can help us spread an important message of hope and success to practitioners, parents, educators and our next generation,” Dr. Mindy Yoder, dean of the University of Saint Francis School of Health Sciences, said in a statement.

Two years ago, Schmitt said she became vocal about mental health issues after one of her cousins committed suicide.

“For her to be willing to open up and discuss her issues will certainly help erase some of the stigma that so many young people with depression are facing,” Marcia Haaff, CEO of The Lutheran Foundation, said in a statement.

Schmitt credits seeing a psychologist with helping her cope with depression. Talking about problems is key. Keeping concerns bottled inside can have grave consequences.

Schmitt, who tallied four gold medals, two silver and two bronze in three Olympic Games, said her depression surfaced at a time when “everything seemed like it was going great.” Through studying, Schmitt said she has learned depression often occurs when people are in their early 20s; typically there’s a chemical change in the brain.

Even if people suffering depression aren’t verbal, those around them can be supportive, Schmitt said.

If someone seems unusually angry, for example, that may be a sign something more is going on than what they are responding to. It’s important to not just dismiss a person or their actions as mean. Instead, Schmitt said, let them know you’re available to talk anytime the person needs.

“Let them know that you love them and that you’re there for them,” Schmitt said. “Repeatedly say that.”