Detroit News: Michigan athletes tackling mental health issues

The Detroit News profiled Athletes Connected and Will Heininger to discuss how Michigan is dealing with the challenges of student-athlete mental wellness.

By John Niyo

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.

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.”

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.

Read the rest of the story on The Detroit News.