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Niyo: Michigan athletes tackling mental health issues

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the year Will Heininger was a sophomore.

Ann Arbor — The headlines keep screaming about a crisis, most recently the suicide of a starting quarterback for a major college football program. And the underlying numbers — about the prevalence of mental-health problems in today’s society, and the stigma still attached to it in sports — suggest there’s ample cause for alarm.

Former Michigan defensive lineman Will Heininger said mental health should be approached like any other health issue.

But seated in an office inside the University of Michigan’s Comprehensive Depression Center, Will Heininger, a former defensive lineman for the Wolverines — and someone who might’ve been a sad statistic himself had a silent cry for help not been heard several years ago — wants to make a point.

There’s hope, and light, and as the late-morning sun shines through the windows of this transformative building on UM’s east medical campus — home to the first-ever multidisciplinary center dedicated to depression and bipolar illnesses — Heininger is busy delivering a clear-eyed message.

“I think it’s important that people know progress is being made,” said Heininger, now 29 and working as outreach coordinator for the UM Depression Center. “The dramatic headlines are going to grab more attention. Yet for every tragic situation and life lost to suicide, there’s a ton of outreach and prevention work being done that obviously might not make the news.

“You can’t only focus on the negatives. Because it’s not an accurate version of the truth. We are doing great work and there’s really devastating things still happening.”

May is Mental Health Awareness month, and speaking as both a mental-health advocate and as a young man whose own life was nearly destroyed by depression, Heininger doesn’t want this to be overlooked: “I’m really proud of how far we’ve come.”

The four-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree struggled with depression that left him mentally and physically exhausted.

As he should be. Heininger is a testament to that progress, a former football player openly discussing once-taboo subjects of fear and anxiety and depression. He’s also the poster boy, in many ways, for UM’s Athletes Connected program, a living, breathing example of why this collaborative effort between the School of Public Health, the Depression Center and the athletic department is needed.

Founded in 2014, it has served as a de facto pilot program for universities nationwide facing a deadly serious concern inside the multibillion industry of college sports, and the reality that athletes face different mental-health challenges — and different obstacles to getting help — than their peers.

A $50,000 grant from the NCAA helped get things started in Ann Arbor, and former interim athletic director Jim Hackett, now the CEO of Ford Motor Co., donated half his first-year AD salary of $600,000 in 2015. And while the fundraising efforts continue, the real progress is measured in other ways.

Most notably, in acceptance and enthusiasm, as UM athletes take advantage of a variety of services, from “wellness groups” led by licensed social workers to individual sessions with clinicians. There’s the growing library of in-house videos with messages from fellow UM athletes about coping with stress or injury or depression. And there’s also the “Messages of Hope” board inside the Ross Academic Center, where they share personalized notes on wooden tiles as part of a display that was dedicated last fall to the memory of former UM track athlete Garrick Roemer, who committed suicide in 2014.

‘Nobody really talked’

The impact of it all isn’t lost on Emily Klueh, a 2008 NCAA champion swimmer at Michigan who retired from competition two years ago and now works as an athletic department counselor and program coordinator for Athletes Connected.

“When I was in school,” Klueh says, “nobody really talked about any of that stuff.”

And like Heininger, she knows from first-hand experience how troubling that can be. Formerly Emily Brunemann before her 2014 marriage to fellow world-class simmer Michael Klueh, she battled an eating disorder while in college “and I was heading down a very bad path.” But though she eventually got the help she needed, Klueh adds, “I’m a big believer in a preventative model.”

“A lot of my teammates knew that I was struggling, but nobody talked to me about it,” she said. “Nobody knew how to talk to me. And that’s one of the encouraging things that we see now. That a lot of our students are really passionate about mental health, about gaining the peer-to-peer skills that research shows are so valuable.

“I hear it all the time: ‘I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to act. I don’t know how to help.’ That’s where need to continue to get better, teaching them how to recognize signs and symptoms, how to be a friend, how to just be there.”

Because the research shows the problems aren’t going away for college athletes, not with life’s everyday stresses compounded by academic workloads, intense competitive pressures, injury and social media, among other issues. Then there’s the stigma still associated with mental health in sports.

“That it’s shameful or I’m weak or I’m soft — all the stuff I thought growing up before I understood how our brain works,” Heininger said.

The statistics bear that out, too. According to the annual Healthy Minds Study, a national survey of college students started a decade ago by UM professor Daniel Eisenberg, the principal faculty investigator for Athletes Connected, roughly one-third of them showed signs of a mental-health problem. But even recent data from 2016-17 shows that less than half of student-athletes (43.9 percent) sought any form of treatment.

‘I didn’t know what it was’

Heininger was one of those who did, but only after months of suffering in silence. A former Ann Arbor Pioneer standout, he'd endure all the typical trials for a Division I football player — fighting for playing time, a torn ACL, a coaching change for a program in turmoil. But Heininger, who'd eventually become a four-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree, also had issues at home, with his parents’ divorce adding to the unchecked depression that left him mentally and physically exhausted. He couldn’t sleep, he could barely eat — “It was taking me an hour to chew a turkey sandwich,” he says — and what little energy he had went into hiding his condition, instead of treating it.

“I thought to myself, ‘This must be what people mean when they say they’re going crazy,’ ” Heininger said. “I didn’t know what it was.”

He wouldn’t until he broke down in tears at the end of an August practice before his sophomore year in 2008, and a team athletic trainer, Lenny Navitskis, noticed “and put his arm around me and said ‘Come with me, Will. We’re gonna take care of you and you’re gonna be all right.’ He walked me into (athletic counselor Barb Hansen’s) office and saved my life.”

So that’s the connection Heininger’s talking about now, and the message he’s determined to spread, consulting with other athletic departments, from National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics schools to Stanford. It’s why he’s speaking at high schools all over the state. It’s why he’ll be making a presentation at Ford later this month, with Hackett interested in fostering a healthier corporate workforce now.

Yes, there is still far too much work to be done. And Heininger gets choked up talking about a letter he wrote after he heard the heart-rending news about Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski taking his own life in January. It was a cathartic note he addressed to Hilinski but wrote for himself, about “what I wish he would’ve known about how you feel — and that it’s not permanent.”

Hilinski’s ex-teammate Luke Falk, recently drafted by the Tennessee Titans, said much the same at the NFL scouting combine in March, talking about losing a friend and gaining a new appreciation for speaking up.

“I know that I have a platform that can reach a lot of people and hopefully a lot of good can come from it,” Falk said. “There definitely needs to be a change, and less of a stigma about mental health, especially with men. Hopefully a lot of good can come from it.”

That’s the notion Heininger keeps coming back to in an hourlong interview. The athletes he sees regularly are pushing for change. UM’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee has made mental health its top priority the last three years. The women’s lacrosse team designated its Big Ten opener this spring a Mental Health Awareness Game. Klueh helped organize a luncheon for UM athletes in March with NFL star Brandon Marshall, who was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 2011. The more high-profile athletes who speak out on this issue — Olympic icon Michael Phelps going public with his battles with depression, NBA Steph Curry promoting mental health in TV ads, and so on — the better. That surely plays at least a small role in what Klueh describes as a “dramatic increase in people reaching out for help, all across the spectrum.”

Just as important, perhaps, is the recognition by decision-makers on college campuses that improved mental health can lead to better performance. This isn’t just about crisis prevention or clinical cases. It’s about athletes understanding it’s OK not to be OK, and to say so, without fear of losing playing time or being ostracized.

Heininger says he’s encouraged on that front as well, citing the athletic department support and specifically “the coaches that get it,” like John Beilein, fresh off another Final Four appearance with the men’s basketball program.

“I love that man,” said Heininger, who wants to hold a coaches’ summit on mental health at Michigan in the near future. “(Beilein) was the one asking the most questions at the meeting. He knows there’s something there. ... And I think that’s part of why you see a team that is so rightfully confident. They understand themselves, they value each other, and a lot of the things that we know go into well-being, he just includes in their daily experience.”

And in the end, that’s what this is all about, understanding this is a health issue, just like any other in sports, or life.

“You get diagnosed with cancer, you don’t say, ‘I’m not telling anybody. I’m gonna beat this myself,’” Heininger said. “When you walk into the weight room, people are like, ‘Oh, good, you’re working on yourself.’ You walk into the counseling office, it should be the same thing: You’re working on yourself.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo