NCAA Champion Paige McKenna Opens Up On Mental Health Struggles

2022 NCAA champion and rising University of Wisconsin sophomore Paige McKenna documented the battles she’s had with mental health in a social media post on Thursday.

McKenna, 19, opened up on what led to her struggling with mental health, how having to quarantine during the pandemic made things worse, and that she was unknowingly the victim of a sexual assault.

She goes on to document her path to recovery from self harm and how seeing a therapist has been beneficial.

Read her full post below:

Warning: this post includes suicidal thoughts.

“I have struggled with mental health for years. I always felt like my feelings were invalid and I wasn’t actually depressed or I was just being too dramatic. I grew up in a supportive family who was willing to live in two places so I can continue to move up with my swimming career so why should I be depressed? I have possibly everything I could ever ask for and yet I was upset most of the time, I sat in my room, and didn’t want to be around others.

“About three years ago I was on a training trip and I was watching a movie, and in this movie was a depiction of someone self-harming. Immediately following the movie I had a complete breakdown. I started having panic attacks, I couldn’t breathe, and was terrified of what was happening. I hadn’t self-harmed in years so I didn’t believe I could have been triggered by that movie scene but I had been. For the whole training trip I was struggling. I lost 10 pounds, I couldn’t make it through the day without having at least five panic attacks. I was told that I was a burden to my team for feeling this way and that if I don’t get my act together I was going to be sent home. Even now I don’t remember everything that happened because it was so traumatic my brain has blocked it out completely.

“Following the training trip I started seeing a therapist for a little while until I felt better. I continued on with my life like nothing happened and for a while everything was OK. That was until I was in quarantine for COVID. All pools shut down and I was left to fend for myself and decided to run to try to stay active. I would find out about two years later that maybe running wasn’t the best idea. During that time I was training in a pool by myself with my dad as my coach. I started to lose all motivation to swim. I didn’t want to work hard and my dad and I would fight all the time because I didn’t want to swim. I would sit in my room all day on my phone doing nothing. I started to feel the effects of my torn labrum (unknown to me at the time) and wasn’t able to swim at all. I felt hopeless because I wasn’t training hard enough but at the same time I didn’t want to train at all. This went on for months until I was able to start training with my team again. The only problem is I wasn’t at the same level of fitness as before. I couldn’t go the times I went in practice before quarantine and I was frustrated. I felt like the only way I could get my frustration out is if I started self harm. I would show up to practice with my arm covered in cuts.

“That same summer I was sexually assaulted. At first I didn’t realize the seriousness of what happened to me so I brushed it off. Then a week later it all started to set in. I was angry and frustrated that I let this happen to me and I blamed it on myself. I continued to self harm because I used it as a punishment for what I had let happen to myself. I felt like I had no one to turn to. I wouldn’t tell anyone what happened and I would continue to show up with cuts on my arm. It felt like a cry for help but yet no one said anything. I felt alone. I struggled on like this for months where it eventually got to the point where in January of 2021 I wanted to end my life. I was tired of going of going on pretending like I was OK. I thought it would be easier on myself and everyone if I just didn’t exist anymore.

“I can’t remember at which point I decided that I should get help but I’m grateful that I did. I started seeing an online therapist and we would talk every day and I was happy I finally had someone to talk to about this stuff. I slowly worked on getting clean from self harm. I started to see why I mattered and why not existing wouldn’t be the better option. Four months later I was officially clear from self harm. ‘Long story short I survived.’ To try to move on from my past struggles I got that Taylor Swift lyric tattooed on my arm to cover up my scars and to remind myself that I am a survivor.

“Although that part of my life is over I still have daily struggles of being an athlete. This past month and a half has been especially hard for me mentally. Being an athlete who is currently injured and recovering from surgery I’ve learned a lot about myself. Feeling as though I’m useless to my team because I can’t swim is something I struggle with every day, even though I know I have a great support system to turn to. To win a National Championship this past March and then have my coach move away two weeks later, not being able to swim because of surgery, and lose someone who was very significant in my life all in the span of a month put a huge toll on my mental health. Questioning whether or not I will be able to get back to where I was athletically pre-surgery or if I’m going to be there and support my team that I way I did before are all things I think about on a daily basis. I also couldn’t help but thinking that I wasn’t good enough and that’s why people were suddenly leaving me. Knowing that I have a support system helps me get through it every day. Endless conversations with my friends and family helped me realize that I was good enough and how I perform in the pool doesn’t determine my worth.

“It’s OK to get help. It’s OK not to be OK. Your feelings are valid and you are loved. Tell your friends you love them, go out of your way to make someone feel loved. It may save their life.

With love, Paige.


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A post shared by Paige Mckenna (@paigemckennaaaa)

McKenna said that she decided to open up on her struggles with May being Mental Health Awareness Month, along with the “recent tragedies in the student-athlete community,” likely referencing the Cal swimmers who revealed they’ve contemplated suicide due to the alleged verbal abuse of women’s head coach Teri McKeever.

McKenna had an incredible freshman career at Wisconsin that included winning a pair of Big Ten titles in the 500 and 1650 free before roaring to the NCAA title in the mile this past March, hitting best times in both races after entering college having not lowered her PB in either since 2019.

As noted in her post, she did so while dealing with two torn labrums, and underwent surgery in early April.

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Look around
6 months ago

Thank you Paige! However I would say that it is more likely that this is a reference to the student athletes who have lost their lives battling mental illness. Especially seeing that a badger student athlete just died last month. It is likely that paige has been working on this statement for much longer than the amount of time that this horrible news about Teri McKeever has been public….

Mediocre Swammer
Reply to  Look around
6 months ago

I agree. I was trying to think of a way to say that, and you’ve done a better job. Thanks.

6 months ago

Is college swimming worth it? Being away from family?
I know I’ll get downvotes but some of these posts lately are devastating.

The Kraken
Reply to  Joel
6 months ago

I mean, based on some of the stories I’ve heard secondhand, no

6 months ago

Paige is an absolute badass. I’m so proud of her for coming forward and sharing her story – it couldn’t have been easy especially after the recent passing of another Wisconsin student-athlete.

6 months ago

Suicidal ideation is multifactorial and complex.

6 months ago

Paige, thank you for sharing your story, and especially for including that first paragraph about how having a supportive family made you think your feelings weren’t valid. That’s so relatable for a great number of us, and denying ourselves validation inevitably makes things worse. A major trauma or unhappy family life are not prerequisites for feeling despair and needing help. Lots of love to you as you continue your recovery!

6 months ago

She should go train with Teri McKeever. She has a great track record of taking struggling swimmers like Natalie Coughlin, Dana Vollmer, and revitalizing their careers.

Becky D
Reply to  CraigH
6 months ago

Too soon

6 months ago

Are there a higher number of swimmers who struggle with mental health or does it just seem that way because more of them are opening up about it?

Reply to  zdhamme86
6 months ago

I think swimming the nature of swim training is more challenging than team sports, but given the relatively high number of college athlete suicides we’ve seen this year, I don’t think the numbers in swimming are way out of wack.

There’s definitely been more people speaking out about their struggles and I hope that continues. When people like Paige who have seen massive success in their sport share their story, it makes it a little easier for the next person to ask for help.

Justine Schluntz
Reply to  zdhamme86
6 months ago

I don’t have data to back this up, but anecdotally from my experience as a professor, students talking openly about mental health challenges is increasingly common in the broader student body. Not just student athletes, not just swimmers. I don’t think mental challenges are new in universities (though the factors leading to them evolve), but I think (and hope) we’re doing a better job creating environments where students recognize and understand what they are experiencing, feel comfortable opening up, and understand that it’s ok to seek help and acknowledge their pain.

Reply to  Justine Schluntz
6 months ago

Rhodes Scholar!

Justine Schluntz
Reply to  Walter
6 months ago

Rhodes scholar, yes, but also a survivor of suicidal feelings and major depression. These stories hit close to home for me. I am so grateful when role models like Ms. McKenna share their stories. It helps people understand that even those who experience great success are not immune from experiencing mental health challenges.

Reply to  zdhamme86
6 months ago

Covid isolation is causing a huge uptick in mental illness; depression and anxiety. On top of that the current generation Z seems to have a higher base line for the same.

6 months ago

Your story reminds me of my daughter’s. She’s not at the point where you are now, but we’re hoping she will be soon. Thank you for sharing what even an elite athlete can go through. Keep on your path. ❤

About James Sutherland

James Sutherland

James swam five years at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, specializing in the 200 free, back and IM. He finished up his collegiate swimming career in 2018, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics. In 2019 he completed his graduate degree in sports journalism. Prior to going to Laurentian, James swam …

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