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U-M receives NCAA grant for student-athlete mental health project

  • Contact David Ablauf, (734) 763-4423, dablauf@umich.edu or Laurel Thomas Gnagey, (734) 647-1841, ltgnagey@umich.edu

Will Heininger, mental health advocate and former U-M football player. Image credit: Michigan PhotographyWill Heininger, mental health advocate and former U-M football player. Image credit: Michigan PhotographyANN ARBOR—It has been said many ways: Being a student-athlete is as much about the mind as it is about the body. But what happens when the extra pressures of winning, juggling packed schedules and keeping up with schoolwork and other demands prove to be too much? For most student-athletes the answer is to suppress and deny, because to acknowledge such a feeling is perceived as a sign of weakness.

"Sometimes it's a bit more difficult for student-athletes to seek help because of the norms around sports of being tough and resilient, finding one's own way through problems," said Daniel Eisenberg, associate professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, and Depression Center faculty member. "All of those norms can work against seeking help, so student-athletes might be more vulnerable to significant mental health problems."

To address this rising concern, the U-M Athletic Department, Depression Center and School of Public Health are partners on a grant from the NCAA that will develop and evaluate a program for supporting mental health initiatives for student-athletes. The project was one of six chosen from the inaugural NCAA Innovations in Research and Practice Grant Program.

"When you have healthy student-athletes who have perspective and understanding of life, you have increased performance. It's truly a win – win," said Will Heininger, a mental health advocate and former U-M football player. "In the work I've done with athletes across the country, this is a huge issue. It's something that's on their minds constantly with the pressures they face, yet they feel afraid to voice their opinions for fears of judgment, shame, or worse, losing their scholarships. In reality, mental health/wellness is a human issue, and one that makes the world a better place. I couldn't be more excited to work on this project, and how fitting that it's happening at Michigan."

Mental health concerns among student-athletes are not new but recent high-profile suicides and testimonies from former college athletes, like Heininger and some who play professional sports, have helped bring attention to this issue.

Michigan's project will develop a pilot program to increase awareness of mental health issues, reduce the stigma of seeking help and promote positive coping skills for student-athletes. It also will create brief and engaging videos featuring Heininger that will focus on successful approaches to overcome mental health struggles. The project will develop support groups, which will utilize the videos to attract participants and stimulate discussion.

Eisenberg is collaborating with U-M Athletic Department counselors Barb Hansen and Greg Harden, and Depression Center Manager of Outreach and Education Trish Meyer, on this project. The creative development of the videos will be led by Blake Wagner III, a recent graduate of the Ohio State University.

Eisenberg is an expert in mental health research and hopes that the model created at Michigan can be replicated at other institutions across the country. The goal of testing and disseminating new models for mental health awareness and intervention is central to the Depression Center, which is part of the U-M Health System, and a founding member of the National Network of Depression Centers.

The goal of the NCAA program is to develop relevant, research-driven, on-campus programming to assist student-athletes. The panel split $100,000 among six recipients, with one large $50,000 grant that was awarded to the University of Michigan, and five other $10,000 grants.

Michigan will present its project results at the NCAA Convention in Washington, D.C., in January 2015.