Michael Phelps on the "Red Flag" of Isolation

Earlier this year, Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt participated in SAMHSA's National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day where they were given SAMHSA Special Recognition Awards for their openness and advocacy regarding mental health. Both shared their struggles with depression and isolation, and the power of peer support and friendship — something they found with each other.

During an interview that took place before the event, both emphasized how isolation should be seen as a big red flag. Michael said “A really powerful word - isolation. I feel like if you find yourself isolating, then that should be a red flag instantly to know that something’s not right.”

There is a lot of wisdom in what the Olympian shared. Isolation is a key risk factor for suicide. One study found that lack of social connection is more detrimental to health than obesity or smoking.

Here’s what helps:

  • Family and community support (connectedness)
  • Supportive medical and mental health care
  • Cultural and religious beliefs
  • Skills in problem solving, social-emotional understanding, and self-regulation

Of all of these, however, one is far more significant that the others: connectedness to family and community. Michael and Allison take note of this as well, as they have found great healing in the friendship and supporting each other. A national study on adolescent health found that “parent and family connectedness and perceived school connectedness were protective against every health risk behavior” (except pregnancy)! For people struggling with health issues, isolating can make healing harder. One study actually showed people with heart disease were at more than two times greater risk of dying of a heart attack than those who were socially connected.

The science has spoken — we know connection is central to good health and wellbeing. We also know that isolation is a “red flag” and one that we need to notice. It is during those times that connection, discussion, and understanding can provide the support someone needs to get back to a healthy place.

About the Author

Helga Luest currently works for a government contractor and manages a number of federal projects related to behavioral health, trauma, and violence prevention. Helga serves on the U.S. Congressional Victims’ Rights Caucus Advisory Group and on the board of the Campaign for Trauma-Informed Policy and Practice, a national nonprofit advancing the transformation of trauma informed practices throughout the United States. In 2010 she was awarded the Congressional Unsung Hero Award for her effective advocacy work on violence prevention and response. In her free time, Helga facilitates two social media groups called Trauma Informed where advocates, survivors, researchers, and other contribute content and commentary on issues related to trauma, prevention, and resilience - on Facebook & LinkedIn

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