September 4, 2014 at 1:00 am

After losing son, ex-Lions QB Eric Hipple battles against depression, suicide

Eric Hipple is the outreach coordinator for the University of Michigan Depression Center. He's speaking at the Pentagon on Tuesday. (University of Michigan Depression Center)

The family will gather for a backyard barbecue, and Eric Hipple will wonder:

Who would Jeffrey have brought?

Would he be married now, at 29? Would he have kids? Or even more basic: If Hipple’s despondent son hadn’t ended his life when he was only 15 years old, what would he look like?

Hipple will never know. But here’s something else he’ll never know:

How many people Jeffrey saved.

Hipple, 56, spent the 1980s as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions. Later, hitting bottom after his son died, he spent 58 days in jail.

Now he spends his workdays as the outreach coordinator for the University of Michigan Depression Center. He travels the world sharing knowledge and perspective that could have made a difference not only for Jeffrey, but for himself.

Tuesday, he’ll be at the Pentagon for something called the Resiliency Health Fair. September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and he’ll address a particularly attentive audience.

At one point in 2013, active duty troops, reservists and National Guard members were killing themselves at a rate of one every 18 hours.

At the Pentagon — and at 35 U.S. Navy installations this year, from the Deep South to the Middle East — Hipple will talk about recognizing mental health problems, dealing with them, and helping others do the same.

He doesn’t always show Jeffrey’s picture, but the image is never far from his mind.

He's lived the material

The fact is, Hipple says, he’s somewhat shy.

Once he gets started, though — “Once I throw the first pass” — he’s rolling. “I know the material. I’ve lived it.”

Hipple dealt with depression himself throughout his life. Or didn’t deal with it, really; he played through it, the same way athletes used to with fractures or concussions.

He didn’t recognize the symptoms in Jeffrey until it was too late. Later, he spiraled out of control himself: a DUI that sent him to jail, a suicide attempt when he hurled himself from a moving car.

A lunchtime information session at UM’s Depression Center gave him answers and, ultimately, a purpose.

He lives in Fenton with Shelly, his wife of almost 25 years, and his two college student daughters.

Shelly is a medical assistant at UM Hospital who wishes he was home more. He’s a platinum-level frequent flier whose most recent presentation was two days ago to schoolkids on Mackinac Island.

He spoke about “mental fitness.” His talks used to focus only on suicide prevention, “but that’s really tough. You have to live that moment of what it felt like.”

Branching out, he can talk about detecting depression, about getting help — and about bouncing back.

The military's battle

The military’s long-term problem, says Marcia Valenstein, can’t be tracked with short-term numbers.

She’s a psychiatry professor at the UM Medical School and a research scientist for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

She can tell you that the frequently seen figure of 18 to 22 veteran suicides per day is misleading, in that it includes all age groups, including older people with chronic illnesses.

She can explain, also, that returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan kill themselves at a higher rate than the rest of their age group — a product of depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome, and also of binge drinking and access to firearms.

What she can’t say is whether suicide prevention programs are working. That will require more years of sampling.

For now, Hipple knows what he’s been told, both by schoolkids and the young men and women who’ve taken him aside on military bases to say, “You made a big difference for me.“

“Sometimes, this is a hard job,“ he says, but that makes it worthwhile — knowing that somewhere, years from now, a parent won’t have to wonder what a young man might look like if only he were there.
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Jeffrey Hipple committed suicide at age 15 in 2000. (Family photo)