When college athletes face this opponent called depression

Aug 12, 2014

Credit Michigan Photography

When you think of a team of student athletes, the phrase "game face" comes to mind. When they face their opponents, they don’t blink. They are there to win.

Now, imagine being a part of that "suck-it-up" culture as the young athletes struggle with mental illness, with depression. 

Will Heininger knows how it felt like. As he played for the University of Michigan as a lineman, he was battling with severe depression.

Heininger says it was incredibly difficult dealing with the hopeless feelings, but he didn’t know what depression was at the time, because it wasn’t talked about when he was growing up.

“At first, I really tried to do the athlete thing: 'I'm tougher than this I'm gonna beat it, and just grind it out' ...and, of course, that made it way, way worse," says Heininger.

Finally, Heininger was able to get help from an athletic counselor after wrestling with it for months. He realized that depression is a just another human illness similar to other illnesses, and we should talk about it more.

Today, he is working with a new pilot program at University of Michigan to increase the awareness of mental health issues for student-athletes.

The program was launched on a grant from NCAA that links the university's Depression Center, the School of Public Health and the Athletic Department.

Daniel Eisenberg is an associate professor at the School of Public Health and a faculty member at the university's Depression Center. He says the team is working on various components, including support groups and a few YouTube videos to engage college athletes.

“In the coming months we hope to establish a model that perhaps other colleges or universities can pick up on, and we can expand nationally with our efforts,” says Eisenberg.

*Listen to the interview with Will Heininger and Daniel Eisenberg above.