Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps is being honored as PRWeek’s Communicator of the Year in recognition of his work to reduce stigma around depression and mental health issues.
Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time, winning 23 gold medals, 28 in total. His performances made him a global phenomenon and a household name.
But, away from the pool, Phelps struggled with debilitating depression and anxiety, leading to self-described public “explosions” involving drugs and alcohol after victories in 2004, 2008 and 2012. He even considered suicide in 2012 following the London Olympics.
He sought help and got his life back on track, and then embarked on a mission to raise awareness of mental health issues and encourage others to seek help and not suffer in silence.
Phelps introduced stress management into programs offered by his Michael Phelps Foundation. He also worked with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
In May 2018, Phelps used his global platform to publicly admit that “it’s OK to not be OK.” Partnering with online therapy platform Talkspace, he shared his personal experiences in TV ads and YouTube videos, encouraging people to speak openly about mental health and demonstrating the benefits of Talkspace.
Reacting to his award, Phelps said: “I am honored to be recognized by PRWeek as their Communicator of the Year and appreciate the opportunity to address the importance of mental health.
“Accepting professional help changed my life. When I fully embraced that it’s OK to not be OK, I opened up and discovered there is strength in vulnerability. Ironically, I learned to communicate at 30!
“We are all impacted by mental health and communication is the key to understanding, connection, and meaningful change.”
In November 2019, Phelps was named number one on PRWeek and sister title MM&M’s Health Influencer 50 list for his advocacy around mental health issues.
Phelps joined Talkspace’s advisory board and approaches the role with the same zeal he put into his Olympic training. He authentically committed to a cause he was passionate about and leveraged his fame to help others.
A year after launching the Talkspace partnership, Phelps published two tweets from his Twitter handle in May 2019, reigniting a global discussion about mental health awareness.
“Did you know that one in four people around the world experience a mental health issue? I was one of them,” he wrote.
“I struggled with anxiety and depression and questioned whether or not I wanted to be alive anymore. It was when I hit this low that I decided to reach out and ask for the help of a licensed therapist. This decision ultimately helped save my life. You don’t have to wait for things.”
The tweets resulted in hundreds of thousands of likes, retweets and replies. Talkspace has seen a rise in clientele and Phelps’ words have helped save lives.
"Those moments, feelings and emotions, for me, are light years better than winning the Olympic gold medal," Phelps said.
Sponsored by Johnson & Johnson, the Communicator of the Year category was introduced in 2013 by PRWeek and honors the outstanding communicator in the period covered by this year’s awards.
The individual can come from within or outside the PR industry and previous honorees include March For Our Lives’ cofounder David Hogg, #MeToo pioneer Tarana Burke, State Senator Clementa Pinckney (D-SC), ALS campaigner and ice-bucket challenge founder Pete Frates, and schoolgirl human rights activist Malala Yousafzai.
“Michael Phelps is an iconic example of someone who has achieved so much on the world sporting stage but who is now using that platform to communicate effectively around one of the biggest issues in modern society,” said Steve Barrett, editorial director of PRWeek.
“We are proud to acknowledge his commitment to improving awareness of mental health issues and using smart communications as a core part of that process.”
Phelps will accept his honor at the PRWeek Awards gala ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City on Thursday, March 19. Go here for more information and to purchase tickets.