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How Olympic swimmer Allison Schmitt beat depression

There was a time not so long ago when the gold medalist didn't want to get out of bed.

Team USA swimmer Allison Schmitt is in the news this month for more than just her gold- and silver-medal performances in Rio last week. She’s also been speaking out about her battle with depression, and her message of hope for others who are struggling.

In recent interviews with Today and ESPN, Schmitt recalled how she returned home from the 2012 Olympics (with five medals!), graduated college, and embarked on a career as a professional swimmer. But she experienced a let-down after her whirlwind tour in London—the post-Olympic blues, athletes call it—and she had trouble focusing in the pool.

Her next few seasons were disappointing, as she missed out on spots on the world championship and national teams. “That’s a pretty big fall,” her coach Bob Bowman told Today. Schmitt took it hard, and she sunk deeper into depression.

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Even as she prepared for a comeback at the 2016 Olympic trials, she struggled to compete—and to get through the day. She remembered not wanting to get out of bed in the morning, and even having thoughts of steering off the road while driving.

Schmitt was good at putting on a happy face. But those close to her, including teammate and good friend Michael Phelps, could tell something was wrong. They encouraged her to get help, and in early 2015 she began seeing a psychologist.

A few months later, Schmitt’s 17-year-old cousin April committed suicide. April had also been an athlete, and had also suffered from depression. It was the wake-up call Schmitt needed, she said, to not only take better care of herself but to also speak out and try to help others the way she couldn’t help her cousin.

“If there was one thing I could say … [I’d] let her know that there was a light at the end of the tunnel,” Schmitt told Today.

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When temporary sadness becomes a bigger problem

Parts of Schmitt’s story may sound familiar to the millions of other Americans suffering from depression. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, major depressive disorder affects nearly 7% of adults in any given year, and is the leading cause of disability in the United States for people ages 15 to 44.

Health contributing psychology editor Gail Saltz, MD, says it’s not unusual for a disappointing or sad event to trigger an episode of clinical depression. “It’s normal to be sad or to grieve a loss—like not making a team that the future of your career depends on,” says Dr. Saltz, who did not treat Schmitt. “Short-term, that can look a lot like depression, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you need treatment.”

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Sometimes, though, that sadness becomes long-lasting and all-encompassing. “Your brain experiences emotional blows as chemical events, and it’s possible for those chemical changes to become long-term,” she explains. (In people who are predisposed to depression, she says, those chemical changes can also occur out of the blue.)

But it’s not always easy to tell when a temporary funk—your own or a loved one’s—has become something more serious.

“The question becomes how incapacitating does it become and how long does it last,” says Dr. Saltz. She recommends looking for what are called neurovegetative signs of depression: difficulty falling asleep, early morning awakening, loss of appetite, or loss of pleasure in activities you’d normally enjoy.

These are flags that there is something biological going on, she says, that may require treatment—either talk therapy, medication, or a combination of both—to correct the brain’s chemical imbalance.

Dr. Saltz also stresses that anyone having feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness should talk to their doctor or a mental-health professional right away. “If you have any thoughts that life isn’t worth living or thoughts about suicide, it’s very important that you get help,” she says. “Because depression is very treatable, even if it might not seem that way when you’re in the middle of it.”

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Schmitt’s message for others

Shortly after her cousin’s death, Schmitt talked with the Associated Press about an important lesson she’s learned: The appearances that people present to the world—herself included—don’t always match the reality of what they’re going through underneath.

“Things are filtered on Instagram and social media, or even walking around with a smile on your face, and it’s filtering out how you really feel,” she said. She wants athletes, especially—who tend to be strong-willed and good at hiding their emotions—to know that things don’t have to be that way. “That's something in the future I would like to work on,” she said, “to let them know it's OK not to be OK.”