Swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, has been candid about facing mental health challenges — from contending with ADHD when he was younger and reaching a “point of desperation” when he was older — and has joined the board of a technology startup seeking to provide objective diagnoses for those battling depression, stress, anxiety and other maladies.
An Australian medical technology company called Medibio has developed a series of algorithms that test biomarkers gleaned from wearable devices to identify various psychiatric disorders. This app is currently undergoing clinical trials at Johns Hopkins, the University of Ottawa and other institutions while seeking FDA approval by 2018.
“For me, to open up about my story, hopefully we can have other people open up about their story as well because we know they are out there,” Phelps said in an interview with Benzinga. “Nobody’s perfect, we are all human beings, and we do go through the same things in life. For me for the longest time I could never ask for help, I am trying to encourage people to go out and ask for help.”
“It took me a long time to finally realize that it’s okay to ask for help and it’s okay to not be okay,” he added. “Once I found that out I was able to save my life and make my life exponentially better, that’s something that I will forever be thankful for.”
Benzinga reported that more than 350 million people are estimated to have depression, but only seven percent of that population receives optimal treatment. That owes to a winnowing scale by which only half of folks with depression seek help; only 70 percent receive an accurate diagnosis; and only 20 percent of that subset receive the proper care. Medibio reported to Benzinga that, so far, studies have show accuracy levels between 86 and 95 percent.
Phelps, who told the Associated Press last winter of his interest in tech startups, discussed in the interview a particular challenge for his peers to seek help, saying, “Athletes are scared to ask for help.” Furthermore, many Olympic athletes are prone to downslides after their four-years Games cycle. Post-Olympic depression is a well-known condition, one that sports psychologist Scott Goldman has called “an under-recovery.”
“[The athletes] are just exhausted; it was such an onslaught to their system,” Goldman, the director of the Performance Psychology Center at the University of Michigan, told the Atlantic. “And when it’s all said and done, they’re just physiologically depleted, as well as psychologically.”
Phelps spoke this spring at a panel at which he acknowledged the depth of his depression.
“For me getting to an all-time low where I didn’t want to be alive anymore, that’s scary as hell,” he said at the event, according to USA Today. “Thinking about taking your own life, I remember sitting in my room for four or five days not wanting to be alive, not talking to anybody. That was a struggle for me. … For me, I reached that point where I finally realized I couldn’t do it alone.”
Medibio’s hope is to appeal to a broader segment of the population with someone like Phelps helping de-stigmatize the idea of seeking aid.
“We are able to have a better understanding of what the person needs, where we are able to send that person based off test results that are given,” Phelps told Benzinga. “I think that is something that nobody has seen and it is endless opportunity to really be able to pinpoint every single need that everybody has.”