October 18 2017

How psychology gave me the edge

By Australian Psychological Society

For Olympian Libby Trickett, regular mental health checks have been her secret weapon - in the water and out

It was during what would be the greatest two weeks of Libby Trickett’s life that she experienced her first bout of depression.

She had a stellar meet at the 2007 World Championship, pulling in five gold medals, an exhibition race swimming against US legend Michael Phelps – and setting an unofficial world record – and then her much-awaited wedding to her fiancé just days later.

“Even though that was an amazing two week period time of my life – things really couldn’t have got any better than that – but I felt really down. It was probably a good three months in which I struggled to get out of bed and I just had no motivation to go to training.

“People would ask, ‘why are you upset, you’ve just had the best meet of your life, you’ve gotten married, you’re riding high’, but I found it quite a challenging experience.”

What Trickett describes is not uncommon, as many people still believe in the myth that mental illness, and especially depression, only happens to people who have experienced a traumatic event. But she has since learned that‘s not the case and that depression doesn’t discriminate.

Long before her own personal experience, Trickett had been exposed to mental health issues through her family, with members struck with depression, anxiety, emotional eating, obsessive compulsive disorder, alcoholism, schizophrenia and bipolar.

“I’ve dealt with mental illness in my family a lot throughout my life, we’re a bit of a mixed bag,” she says with her trademark laugh.

But despite her extensive knowledge of mental illness, she admits to still struggling to identify the same symptoms in herself.

“I was in peak physical fitness, performing on the highest stage in my field and I didn’t think that I would succumb to depression. I didn’t understand what was happening, but looking back now, I understand the signs and triggers.

“On the outside, I had nothing to be upset about and that can be hard to acknowledge. But  it’s about how you’re feeling, and realising that you can’t cope on your own can be really humbling.”

Trickett has been a strong advocate for people experiencing mental health issues and is an ambassador for Beyondblue, one of Australia’s leading mental health advocacy groups. She says she had no hesitation in going public with her own struggles, saying that she’s an “open book” who prefers not to hide what she’s feeling or thinking.

“For me, it just felt like a natural extension of talking about my swimming and it’s been a huge part of my own healing, and mental health challenges are universal; I don’t think anyone is exempt. If you don’t experience it personally, you will know someone for whom it does.”

Today, Trickett treats her mental health exactly the same as she does her physical health, and encourages others to do the same.

“For me, I know it’s about managing my mental health,” she says. “We encourage people to see a doctor if they’re sick or are injured, and I think it’s just as important to see a psychologist if you feel you’re having an acute mental health issue.”

“It’s important to look after yourself.”

Libby Trickett spoke at a Mental Health Week event in Melbourne, hosted by the Australian Psychological Society.