MeiMei White competes at the World Para Swimming World Series stop in Indianapolis, Indiana, on April 4-6, 2019.
In the middle of the night, MeiMei White sat outside crying. She was hurt, struggling and she didn’t know what to do.
This pain White felt was new to her, and it was rare for her, a self-described “locked book,” to openly shed tears. Yet, on this August night, the pain was intolerable. She turned to her older brother, Keegan, for help.
“I need help. What should I do?”
Keegan has always been close with MeiMei, and he has been able to help her in times of need. He now lives in Dublin, Georgia, two hours away from MeiMei and their parents in Athens, and he immediately drove to MeiMei, arriving at her house between 1 and 3 a.m. Keegan listened to MeiMei, and the thoughts of suicide and self-harm she had been noticing. She had never had these thoughts before.
“He was able to help tell my mom, because at that point, I was super scared to tell her,” White said. “I hate it when I worry people.”
After White shared she was having suicidal thoughts and thoughts of self-harm, she was admitted to the hospital.
This was a key moment in the year and in the young life of the 16-year-old Para swimmer. White, a rising star in the pool, made the U.S. emerging athlete team when she was 11 years old. Two years later, she started competing in the World Para Swimming World Series events in Sheffield (United Kingdom), Berlin and Singapore in the 100-meter breaststroke, 400-meter freestyle and 200-meter individual medley. And at the age of 14, White made the national team.
In listing her accolades, Kelley noted MeiMei has won 11 gold medals and five silver medals in her young career.
Last year, White noticed something was different. She felt “awful,” and she “started to hate everything,” including swimming. She would lay in her bed and stare at the ceiling. At first, she thought she was just a “moody teenager,” but any perceived moodiness was not fading. White said she had not previously been one to express her feelings. She was afraid, and she didn’t understand.
In June 2019, White was getting mad all the time, and she and her mom were not communicating.
“We just didn’t understand why I was on edge all the time,” White said.
A few months later, Kelley expressed concern for MeiMei, and the two had a conversation about the situation.
“I was like, ‘You know what, I don’t think this is right. This isn’t normal,’” White said. She saw her pediatrician, and she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
After experimenting with different medication, White felt a lot better until April, when she and her parents moved to Athens. Now, White and her parents lived in a new community, a month after the local officials enforced a stay-at-home order. White intended on practicing with Harvey Humphries, the long-time swim coach at the University of Georgia, but she was limited to at-home exercises.
As the new scenario set in, her mental health declined, following a national and international trend in which children and adolescents faced mental health struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic.
White, a gold medalist in the 100 breaststroke and 400 free at last year’s World Para Swimming World Series in Indianapolis, stopped swimming. Actually, she stopped doing everything.
After spending time in the hospital, Kelley heard from Erin Popovich, the 14-time Paralympic gold medalist and current associate director of sport operations for U.S. Paralympics Swimming. Kelley shared with Erin an update on MeiMei’s health, and Erin worked with the sports psychologists within the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee to help MeiMei find the right therapist.
“I feel like trying to find a therapist who is good and understands you is like trying to find a best friend,” White said. “Having a best friend is hard to find. I feel like a best friend to me (is a person) who would be there for me, I would be there for them, they would understand, they would listen, I could help them and they could help me. There aren’t a lot of people out there who want to do that as their job.”
With the help of Popovich, White found the right therapist for her needs. White said this last year has taught her how to better express and articulate her feelings and mental health struggles.
She hopes her sharing her experiences will inspire others to feel comfortable seeking the help they need.
“I think that mental health is so important to everybody, and it’s something that people need to address,” she said.