Former Olympian Libby Trickett wants to remove mental health stigma

Libby Trickett isn’t ashamed to talk about her mental health struggles. And she’s on a mission to convince others to open up too.

The 34-year-old four-time Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer was hit with depression twice; first when she retired from swimming and secondly after she had her first daughter, Poppy, now aged three.

“For almost a year I fell into quite a dark depression,” she says of her first bout with the disease.

“I was totally ready for life after swimming but until you’re there and living it I guess, it’s kind of hard to comprehend how that will be like. I really struggled with the loss of identity, lack of routine and lack of peer support.

“So much of my life was dominated by swimming and it was a difficult adjustment.”

The depression ultimately led her back to being a professional athlete, but it was different after Poppy was born. She couldn’t just fix it by reverting to her life pre-child.

“I went into it with the mentality of ‘Most people do it, so how hard can it be?’. I don’t know if that’s the best way to enter parenthood and I wouldn’t recommend it,” she says.

“I was definitely ready for it, I wanted to get to that next step in my life and it felt like the natural decision, but I now realise you can’t anticipate what’s going to happen, what experience you’ll have trying to get pregnant, be pregnant, what kind of child you’ll have,” she says.

“These are all crucial elements that contribute to the journey of parenthood.”

What broke her was the “level of sleep deprivation” combined with her “athlete mentality.”

“When swimming, you’re constantly getting feedback; this is good, this is not good, stop doing that, this is how to get better. When parenting, you don’t get that opportunity,” she says.

“I had a screaming baby yelling at me and I had to decipher what they wanted, needed, required. At the four-month mark she went from sleeping eight-10 hours to just 45 minutes at a time for five months.

“My athlete mentality told me it must have been my fault – if I could be enough for her she would be sleeping. That made sense in my mind at that stage.”

Trickett’s “dark thoughts” eventually led her to see her GP and psychologist for help and together, they put a plan in place.

Heed the signs

Looking back, she says the signs she was depressed were obvious.

“I had incredible anger, zero patience and zero tolerance. It’s not my natural state and I didn’t know that was a sign of depression,” she says.

Trickett is Queensland’s Mental Health Ambassador and recently took part in a panel discussion at life insurer TAL’s Future of Better Health event. Her decision to speak out about her darkest days is part of a healing process and she’ motivated by helping people realise they are not alone.

“What I’ve realised is you have to be kind and empathetic,” she says.

“People wouldn’t have known what I was going through. Everyone is fighting battles we know nothing about.

“Life is hard, life is challenging, if we are all as supportive as we can be, we’re all going to be better for it. I feel very strongly about that.”

Learning the language of mental illness

Trickett is also mum to Edwina, 16 months, and has another daughter on the way. She is going to teach her girls the power of empathy.

“For our generation growing up, we didn’t see a lot of discussions around mental health. Although we are embracing it more, we still find it difficult to talk about it and don’t have the language to discuss it,” she says.

“What I hope to teach my girls is to be kind and to have those uncomfortable conversations. I hope through teaching them that by being open, empathetic and understanding to those around them, others will do that back to them when they are struggling.”

Trickett likens mental illness to physical illness. When someone is sick, we ask them how it happened, about their recovery and offer assistance.

“When people have a mental injury we struggle to say can I help you? Someone with a broken leg can still do their work, it’s the same with mental illness. More than likely, they can do 90 per cent of their work and it’s about understanding what their boundaries are when they’re suffering more acutely,” she says.

“Having those uncomfortable conversations is really powerful. ‘Are you ok?’ and ‘Is there anything I can help you with?’ opens the door to letting them talk about it when they’re ready.”