Defensive end Will Heininger battled depression as well as opposing offensive linemen when he played at Michigan. (John T. Greilick / Detroit News)
Ann Arbor — Will Heininger was 19 years old, a happy, bright young man playing football at Michigan, the program he idolized as a kid.
But from May through August in 2008 — his redshirt freshman season — the 6-foot-6 defensive lineman drifted into an area he couldn’t control. He knew how, like most football players, to put his head down and push through physical pain.
This was different.
Depressed thoughts were occupying and consuming him, coming at him in rapid bursts.
“Part of why I understand how serious (mental illness) is, it got to a point it was bad enough, I understood what it felt like to not want to live, which is a scary, scary feeling,” Heininger, 25, said during a recent interview. “If life was that bad, and every day was that hard, how do you do this for a lifetime, let alone another year?”
No one knew what he was going through because he didn’t know what it was.
“It’s the saddest thing ever — I could hide it,” he said. “I put my face on, and I hid it. I did it because I didn’t know any better. You have irrational thoughts. I had every thought from, ‘Are they going to kick me off the team? Are they going to see me as weak?’ ”
One day after practice, Heininger broke down and began to cry. A Michigan athletic trainer saw him, pulled him aside, comforted him and said it was time to get help.
Now, Heininger, an academic All-Big Ten player who started for the Wolverines during their 2011 Sugar Bowl run, is working for the program as a recruiting assistant. He also is a vital part of Michigan’s pilot program to increase awareness of mental health issues for student-athletes.
The Michigan athletic department, the Depression Center and School of Public Health were awarded a $50,000 grant from the NCAA to develop the program. The grant will help fund the development of videos to educate student-athletes and help them overcome mental health issues. Support groups also will be developed and will be available beginning this fall.
“There are some interesting and important issues that are specific to student-athletes,” said Daniel Eisenberg, associate professor of health management and policy at the School of Public Health and a faculty member at the Depression Center. “If college athletics dedicate attention to student-athlete mental health, that’s going to have spillover benefits because of the visibility that sports bring.
“There’s a lot that students, or anyone for that matter, can do for their mental health. The best approach to mental health is to help them help themselves more effectively.”
Finding his calling
Data shows that one in every five youths will develop some sort of mental disorder, and the rate of mental illness is twice as great for the 18-25 demographic versus those over 50.
This has become such an important issue in college sports that last year, the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) approved nine guidelines to help trainers, coaches, team physicians and other administrators work with student-athletes living with psychological issues. The guidelines are focused on identifying mental health problems and directing student-athletes toward help.
Heininger, who left a lucrative financial career in Chicago to return to Ann Arbor, wanted to get into coaching. But more importantly, he wanted to help shed light on depression among student-athletes.
When it was expressed to him that it’s unfortunate he had to go through those trying months burdened with deep depression, he gently corrected the sentiment.
“Fortunately,” he said with conviction. “It is the greatest blessing of my life.”
His goal is simple, and he plans to do it with his involvement in Michigan’s new program.
“My entire work is about blowing the stigma out of the water,” Heininger said. “I’m a curious guy, and I want to learn why things happen. When I was struggling, I wondered, ‘Why don’t people talk about this?’ ”
He sees his role with the program as the link among the three parts — the Depression Center, School of Public Health and athletic department. He believes the attention given a physical injury should apply to student-athletes trying to work through mental health issues, and when an athlete is mentally well, that person is a better teammate and performer.
“We talk about being leaders and best, where better than Michigan to pioneer something like this?” he said. “In five years, every other school is going to be involved in this. This area, wellness or whatever you want to call it, is going to be huge in terms of resources being poured in. ... The main focus is developing successful people.”
Through his experiences, Heininger believes he can help by educating coaches and administrators and, of course, athletes.
Virginia Tech baseball coach Patrick Mason invited Heininger to speak to his team, and when he walked into the auditorium, it was filled with athletes from all sports. He also has spoken to representatives from Major League Baseball, the NFL and NBA. Heininger tells them it’s all about identifying behavior and understanding that with the right therapy and medication, life can improve.
“I tried to do it on my own,” he said. “I was struggling the end of my freshman year. I was 19. I didn’t know what depression was. I knew all of a sudden that I was so confused that my life went from awesome, I had friends, was successful in sports and got good grades and was a happy kid, to miserable, to truly miserable in a span of two to three weeks.
“You internalize it, so you think it’s your fault. No one talked about it growing up, so I didn’t know what it was. When I started to talk about it and let people know and be vulnerable, I learned how much strength there is in vulnerability and allowing people to help you, and I got better.”
Catching the signs
There are an untold number of trigger points, Heininger said.
It could be body image, especially for athletes in body-exposure sports like swimming and gymnastics.
It could be not dealing with loss, as Heininger never gave himself time to do after his parents divorced.
“For me, it was the perfect storm of things,” he said. “It wasn’t the divorce at that moment. It was that unexpected loss that I didn’t see coming, that I didn’t deal with, combined with, I was working a summer job with a lot of men who weren’t happy about their lives, and I was under the stress of football and I was supposed to gain weight.
“You have one bad thought, and a healthy mind can dismiss them. If you’re mentally ill, they can snowball. You start to believe them. Your reality becomes this untrue reality. For me, I felt the future is worthless and it’s bound to be sad and there isn’t happiness in life.”
Heininger first told his mother about his depressed thoughts, and she sent him to a therapist who suggested leaving football would be a good start. He changed therapists. Football, after all, was still a bright light and something he looked forward to.
Now, he looks forward to being a mental health advocate educating — every day.
“I’m well; I’m healthy,” he said. “Luckily, I got help and opened up to people. But we don’t want others to get to that point. We want to educate and help people catch things early. Mental illness is a human condition just like the common cold and the flu.
“This program ... We’re going to change the culture on campus surrounding mental health, so everyone knows it’s normal, that these struggles really are normal, just, like breaking your arm. We don’t want anyone to suffer in silence.”