A video opens with a young couple sitting in a car. The woman turns to the man and in a gentle, reassuring voice says: “This doesn’t change who you are. And this is something a lot of people go through.”
Perhaps no truer words than her last sentence have been spoken when it comes to students and mental health, experts say.
“One in three students experience significant symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions. Yet only about 30 percent of those students seek help, and that number drops to 10 percent for student-athletes,” said Dr. Daniel Eisenberg, associate professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. He also holds positions with the Institute for Social Research and the U-M Comprehensive Depression Center.
A partnership between academics and athletics at U-M recently received $50,000 from the NCAA Innovations in Research and Practice Grant Program to address this concern, by developing mental health initiatives for student-athletes and evaluating their impact.
The man in the car is former U-M football player Mr. Will Heininger. He and former U-M swimmer Ms. Kally Fayhee have joined the team that includes the School of Public Health, the Depression Center, and Michigan Athletics, to change the conversation about athletes and mental health.
The project includes development of a program to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and to encourage student-athletes to seek help if needed. For the past few weeks, the partners have been sharing mental health information with U-M athletic teams, showing the videos featuring Mr. Heininger and Ms. Fayhee, and providing informal, drop-in support groups for student-athletes, which are designed to specifically address their unique concerns and stressors.
Athletes are often afraid to speak up if they are struggling emotionally, both Dr. Eisenberg and Mr. Heininger say, because they fear they have a lot to lose and may believe acknowledging a mental health problem shows a sign of weakness. “One of my biggest fears was telling my coach—the disappointment, the judgment,” Ms. Fayhee said in her video. “But instead, I was met with overwhelming support and guidance.”
The videos are being shown in groups of 50-100 student-athletes, representing 31 teams. All told, program leaders will have presented to approximately 900 students when they conclude with the football team in the next couple of weeks. Data from the evaluation surveys and student focus groups will be used to brainstorm what a more comprehensive program would look like — including possibly expanding the program beyond student-athletes to the larger student population at U-M, and eventually to other colleges and universities.
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