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Former Detroit Lions Quartback Eric Hipple, of Fenton, knows first-hand about suicide risks faced by men. He lost his beloved son Jeff to suicide. Now Hipple is trying to get the word out about Healthy Men Michigan, Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

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Former Detroit Lions quarterback Eric Hipple ignored the growing depression that culminated in his decision to jump out the passenger door of a car traveling at 75 miles-per-hour down Interstate 275 near Canton Township.

Before that unsuccessful suicide attempt in the late 1990s, Hipple had never even thought about his mental health. He’d felt increasingly blue in the years following his release from the Lions in 1989, but he didn’t consider it a problem.

Even right after leaping from a moving vehicle, Hipple wouldn’t see a psychiatrist. That would be a sign of weakness, or so he thought.

“I was (thinking), ‘Ain’t no freakin’ way, I’m fine, this is over now, I’m good to go,’ ” Hipple said recently. “It’s part of the man thing, but it’s also part of the stigma of mental health.”

Getting men to think about mental health, and to get help if they need it, is the focus of a research project called “Healthy Men Michigan,” which is looking to break through thought patterns that keep men from seeking mental health services.

It’s funded with a four-year, $1.2 million grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“(As a man) it’s my job to be mentally tough, so if I’m called on to run through the wall, I’ll run through the wall,” said Hipple, who has been a mental health advocate for nearly two decades now and helped shape male-oriented messages for the Healthy Men Michigan project. “We’re mission-oriented that way.

“That makes it really difficult to get to somebody and talk to them about something that might sound touchy-feely. It’s ‘Call me when it needs to be fixed.’ Let’s not talk about this stuff, just call me when it’s time.”

Men commit suicide at a rate more than three times that of women in the United States, according to the CDC. There were 20.7 suicide deaths per 100,000 American men in 2014, compared with 5.8 deaths per 100,000 women.

Many men tune out talk about depression or mental illness. So the project is reaching out to them in innovative ways, according to Jodi Frey, principal investigator for the Healthy Men Michigan project and an associate professor in the University of Maryland Baltimore School of Social Work.

“We really need to change our mindset to reach out to this very hard-to-reach population,” Frey said. “We need to man-up our messages.”

The focal point of the study is a website where anyone, regardless of gender, can take a quick three-minute mental health screening. About a thousand

people have taken the quiz since the site launched in January 2016, about 50 percent of them male.

People found to be at risk are sent online resources, such as referrals to local mental health services, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.

The website is advertised on social media, and researchers have recruited employers, sports teams, clubs and other male-oriented groups to invite men to take the quiz. Marketing messages focus on positive aspects of mental health, framing it as another form of fitness, and the manly thing to do.

Based on results of the online screenings, about 300 men ages 25-64 will be asked to participate in a study where researchers will follow up on their progress. About 150 have agreed to participate.

“This (online approach) is a real potential for getting health information out to men who aren’t connected at all to traditional health and mental health resources,” Frey said. “We’re finding that men through all of their years are coming to the site.”

‘Is this all there is?’

After a painful departure from the Lions, Hipple established a successful insurance business and did pregame shows for Fox Sports from 1995 to 2000.

But he struggled with unresolved feelings about leaving the game of football, which had consumed his life from the age of nine. He also went through a divorce.

“I was at a loss, didn’t know exactly what to do. I got the divorce, ended up getting remarried, starting a business, and kind of just threw myself into it,” Hipple recalled. “I became successful, until it hit me about five, six years later, like, this is it?

“Is this all there is? Is this what life’s going to be from now on? I lost all motivation.”

Hipple was mulling these thoughts on his way to Metro Airport, bound for a business trip when he made a decision. He scrawled a suicide note on a paper napkin.

He handed the note to his wife, Shelly, who was driving the car. Then, before she could do anything to stop him, he flung open the passenger door and jumped.

“All that stuff I’d been thinking about just kind of surfaced up, and the closer I got to the airport, I just didn’t think I could go.”

The darkest cloud of all

Hipple spent weeks in the hospital enduring surgeries and skin grafts. Though a psychiatrist visited his bedside, he didn’t want help.

Then the darkest cloud of all passed over Hipple’s life. In 2000, his 15-year-old son, Jeff, killed himself with a shotgun at his father’s home in Oakland County.

Jeff’s death shook Hipple to the core. How could his son have experienced the same dark thoughts he had wrestled with? How could he not have known?

Knowing first-hand the unspeakable pain to loved ones caused by suicide, Hipple no longer felt taking his own life was an option. Instead, he fought off his grief and anger with alcohol and risk-taking behaviors.

He was picked up for driving under the influence but balked at the terms of his probation. As a result, he spent 58 consecutive days in jail. It was there that he had a “moment of enlightenment.”

“Coming out of that was the enlightening moment, which was, ‘There is another direction I can take’, which is just pour all of this energy into something positive,” Hipple recalled.

“... We should start talking about it. Let’s find out why this happened, but let’s talk about it, too, and maybe prevent it if we can.”

Hipple got help from a psychiatrist at the University of Michigan Depression Center. And he threw himself into learning everything he could about mental health and suicide prevention.

Since then, then he’s traveled the country speaking to police, corrections officers, veterans, athletes and others about mental health, with a special focus on outreach to men.

In addition to voluntary efforts, he works with patients involved in “After the Impact,” a treatment program for people with post-concussion syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and similar diagnoses.

Tailored to athletes, veterans and first responders, the program has campuses in Michigan and Florida, and is run by Ann Arbor-based Eisenhower Center.

KBouffard@detroitnews.com

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