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HONOLULU (06-Dec) -- When Jaimie Phelan feels overwhelmed with crippling anxiety, she centers herself by naming the people around her, often her teammates. Those teammates were supportive of Phelan when she courageously shared her traumatic experience of sexual assault, and they have remained supportive as she continues to seek treatment and advocate for the importance of mental health awareness.
The act of sharing her story and the support that surrounds her has empowered the 23-year-old in her ongoing journey as a professional runner and a behavioral therapist.
"People shouldn't be afraid to open up to others," Phelan told Race Results Weekly three days before competing in Saturday's Kalakaua Merrie Mile for the first time. "I think just being there for people and being there for your friends is a big thing. If you are in a low spot, know there are things that are out there that can help."
When Phelan was just 15 years old, she was sexually assaulted by two men. For three years, she went into denial of the horrific experience she endured. It wasn't until she arrived at the University of Michigan as a college freshman that she began to experience symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the assault. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), depression, flashbacks and post-traumatic stress disorder are just some of the ways sexual violence can affect survivors.
For Phelan, the symptoms manifested in different forms of disassociation, a detachment from reality and the present. Simple activities such as walking through a dorm hallway would cause her to freeze, unable to move even a step for up to an hour at a time. While working on assignments, her mind would race frantically and she'd forget where she was or what she was working on. In addition to her mind, her body also began to shut down.
"I didn’t really understand what was going on in my own mind. I didn’t understand how my body was reacting. My immune system was dropping a lot," she said. "It wasn’t a cold, it wasn’t the flu. It just didn’t all make sense."
Towards the end of her first indoor track season, the symptoms began to head for a breaking point. By that time, Phelan had shared her story with a few of her teammates who also took notice of her behavior. Through this challenging period, those teammates encouraged her to seek help. With a support system behind her, Phelan gradually gained the confidence to make an appointment through the University of Michigan’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) program.
Seeking help wasn't an easy decision. It took several visits to the counselors' building where she'd walk closer and closer to the door each time before turning around and walking away. Eventually, she walked through the door, and opportunities to heal were waiting for her inside.
"I had to make the decision to do it," she said. “It was definitely not easy, but once I did make that appointment and talk to someone, it was constant help from there on out. It wasn’t an easy road but I'm glad that I ended up reaching out and I'm glad that I had those friends there to support me."
By seeking treatment, Phelan became connected with a large network of mental health professionals through the CAPS program and the Michigan athletic department. With the help of those professionals, she learned about mindfulness techniques and strategies to help combat her depression and PTSD. For example, when she feels her mind and body begin to freeze in a hallway, she starts to name the people around her or focus on small objects to help bring her back to the present. The practice of "imagery" is another technique that has made a huge difference in running and overcoming everyday challenges. One week before a race, Phelan will go into her room, put her legs up on the wall and visualize every detail of race day – from waking up and eating breakfast to positive and negative scenarios that could take place in a race. The goal is to mentally prepare for every possible situation that life could throw at her, and in the process gain confidence in her abilities.
"Going through those feelings and emotions and then imagining your body by getting engaged and feeling like you're already there. It helps me a lot for races and for life," she said.
An unexpected act of bravery served as a turning point in Phelan’s recovery. In the first couple weeks of her junior year, Phelan and the rest of the Michigan athletic department met to listen to a motivational speaker. Towards the end of the presentation, the speaker opened the floor to student-athletes and encouraged them to share their stories. Phelan doesn't remember why, but her hand shot high into the air. In front of hundreds of athletes, coaches, and administrators, Phelan stood up and shared her experience. Afterwards, the entire track team rallied around their teammate. At one point, the whole track team came up to the front of the room in a giant hug.
"It definitely hit me hard and made me realize that more people are thinking about you and caring about you then sometimes you may think at a certain moment. It encouraged me to keep going and keep getting the help that I needed. The more that I learned and understood, the more I can manage what’s going on in my head," she said.
That hug acted as a massive sigh of relief for Phelan.
"It was a big step, it was a hard step, but it was a really good step for me to open up and let my team know what was going on. From there one out, a lot of my teammates just ended up looking out for me, even just holding my hand without saying a word helped. Those little things went a long way for me."
In 2017, Phelan went on to win her first NCAA title. At the 2017 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, she ran a personal best of 4:11.92 in the semifinals of the 1500 meters. Two days later, she won the final with a stunning 61.52-second final lap.
That breakthrough performance highlighted the fact that running and the support system that comes with it have also been forms of therapy for Phelan.
Through the process of treating her own mental health, Phelan has made it her mission to encourage others in their pursuits. While at Michigan and since completing her undergraduate degree in the spring of 2018, she continues to work with Athletes Connected, a program dedicated to serving the mental health needs of Michigan’s student-athlete population. Phelan speaks on panels where she shares her own experience with the hope of increasing awareness and reducing the stigma of seeking help.
Through her own experience, Phelan knows the power of sharing her story and the impact of opening those doors.
"It's a process. For me, it was a long process being in denial for three years and even still, just learning, always learning. It's a big process but it gets better," she said.
"It's OK to not be OK, and you should always work on your mental health," she added. "Whatever you're going through, it's important."