Justine Schluntz swam at the University of Arizona from 2005-2010. She is a Rhodes Scholar and was the 2010 NCAA Woman of the Year. She completed a PhD in engineering at Oxford in 2014 and has returned to Arizona, where she currently teaches engineering.
First, an important thing to know about me: I have depression.
In the immortal words of Sam Smith, I know I’m not the only one. High-profile swimmers such as 4-time Olympic gold medalist Allison Schmitt have also opened up about their depression, helping others realize that even those who seem invincible can struggle with (and overcome!) depression. Sadly, we’ve also seen all too many stories in the last few years of swimmers who have taken their own lives due to depression.
I’m glad that society, and the swimming community in particular, are beginning to understand depression and its severity. I’ve seen many excellent articles on how to improve your mental health (for example, this piece by former US National Team member Emily Brunemann).
But helping yourself is just part of the equation. What about swimmers who don’t have depression themselves, but have a teammate who does, and want to know how to help? Your team is like a second family – it can be really difficult for someone who wants to help a teammate but feels like they can’t. A close friend and Arizona teammate recently talked with me about this, explaining, almost pleading with me, that “we [my UA teammates] want to help you…we just don’t know how.”
I can’t say what will work best for other people with depression – although there are excellent resources available online. What I can do is give insight into my personal experience, in the hope that some of you reading this might relate. So here’s a few things you might consider.
1. Ask me how I’m doing
I know, it can be uncomfortable. You don’t want to get into someone else’s business for fear they might get annoyed or angry with you. But in many cases, including mine, depression can cause someone to turn inwards when they’re hurting. Rather than asking for help when I need it, I tend to shut the world out, which is how a downward spiral can start. Bring me back to the world by getting me to talk about it.
If I do get up the courage to confide in you, listen. It was probably really hard for me to get myself to the point where I was ready to open up. And if you shut me down, it may be all the more difficult for me to do it in the future.
3. Tell me that you care
And then tell me again and again until I believe you. Because the thing about depression is that sometimes it causes you to forget about all the people that have your back. Most of the time I know I’m loved, but during those low points when reality fades away in favor of darkness, I can lose sight of this fact. When I was at my lowest point, teammates who kept reminding me that they love me helped me claw my way out of the darkness.
4. Hold me accountable
Depression can spiral downward quickly. Sometimes people with depression have trouble finding the motivation to get up, to leave the house, to exercise, to go to that social event all their friends are at. You get the picture. But the thing is, when I can actually get myself to do those things, it makes me feel so much better. My closest friends are willing to call me, to nag me, to come over, to do whatever it takes to give me that push I need to get over the hump and do the things that I enjoy and that help my mental health.
5. Don’t feel like you need to fix it right now
You won’t be able to, so don’t beat yourself up over it. It might not seem like it, but you are helping, just by doing the above. Progress might be slow and hard to see, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Even something as simple as having a silly conversation with me helps. Because in the throes of depression, anything that turns my mind outward is a good thing.
Additional links to resources on how to help: