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Mental Health: College Sports' Hidden Ailment

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After four years playing defensive tackle at the University of Michigan, Will Heininger (right) is now raising awareness on mental health issues. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)
After four years playing defensive tackle at the University of Michigan, Will Heininger (right) is now raising awareness on mental health issues. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

It's estimated that one in every four or five youths across this country will suffer from some sort of mental health disorder. Athletes competing in NCAA sports are not immune. Earlier this week, the National Athletic Trainers' Association released guidelines for how teams and colleges should help players dealing with mental health issues. Former defensive tackle Will Heininger, who graduated from the University of Michigan in 2011, joined Bill Littlefield.

BL: How did you come to be an advocate for the mental health of your fellow athlete?

WH: You know I experienced some depression during my own time at U of M, and through great help – which included therapy and the right medicine and love – I was able to overcome it. And I’m passionate about these issues and don’t want anybody else to have to go through what I went through, but also want people to know that it’s normal and that it’s part of being human — and especially can come with the stressors that you have as a student athlete.

In sports ... you put your head down and you tough it out. And with mental illness--and a lot of other things in life--that doesn’t work.

Will Heininger, former Michigan defensive tackle

WH: Yeah, sure. And, you know, it isn’t prying to me – to me it’s a normal issue just like breaking your wrist is a normal issue. And if a kid breaks his arm or if an adult breaks their arm they go to the doctor who’s good for broken arms. And in just the same way, if you’re having some trouble with your head you need to go see a doctor or somebody who’s licensed to help you with that and wants to help you with that.

You know, I had always been a very happy, healthy kid and with a positive outlook on life. But the symptoms were, all of a sudden I was just so down. It was something I had never felt before — I didn’t know how to deal with. I would wake up and until the time I could go to sleep — or if I was able to fall asleep – I would have consuming depressing thoughts. And life didn’t seem like it was worthwhile. And things that made me happy didn’t make me happy. Even thinking about other peoples’ lives, I would think to myself, “How are they happy? It seems so miserable.”

BL: At that time was there anybody sort of seeing what you were going through? Anybody connected with the football program?

WH: No, and I think that’s one of the things that’s really important. Not at first, I should say, because I hid it very well. This was the summer after I moved home. A lot of it traced back to my parents getting divorced when I was 18 and not really dealing with that, so I moved home to a new house with just my mom. I was going to football workouts. I was going to summer school, and I was going to a summer job. So at first I didn’t open up to anybody because I was worried what people would think. I was so ashamed of what was going on.

My athletic trainer at the University of Michigan knew me so well and had spent enough time around me that he could see that something was just wrong with me one day after practice. And it was. I was feeling like I was going to break down, and I had held this all in. And he put his arm around me, and he said, 'We’re going to get you better. We have people here in the building'—that I never knew were there. But it really was that first interaction and the outreach from my athletic trainer that helped get the ball rolling and then the succession of getting the weight off my shoulders and starting to really get better.

BL: You were there for the announcement by The National Athletic Trainers' Association of these new guidelines. What do you hope will change going forward?

WH: You know, I hope a ton of things will change. I hope that in the future that therapy is looked at as something that is a strength and something that is smart to do. I hope that as a culture and as a society we realize how important mental health is and how much it can prevent some of the tragedies we’ve seen, specifically from an athletic standpoint. So, I guess I hope that all athletes will know and have the avenue and have the resources to get better and know that they can get better and know that their lives can return to as good as they were or become better than they ever have been.

BL: There is, as you have suggested, a stigma associated with going to somebody to seek help for a mental health issue. And in sports where toughness is a virtue, particularly in football, do you think that can be changed?

WH: You know I think it can. And I don’t think – I don’t know if change is the right word. It’s this awareness, right. Because there is a certain toughness you need to play whatever sport it is – particularly I can speak to football, absolutely – but also being able to have perspective and realize where football fits in your life. And really, I’ll tell you Bill, I became a better football player and a better student and a better friend and a better son for having gone through this and gaining that perspective. You know in sports oftentimes you’re used to dealing with anything difficult in one way: you put your head down and you tough it out. And with mental illness, and a lot of other things in life, that doesn’t work. So it’s almost learning that skill of how to get help in all the different ways that you might need it.

BL: You graduated in 2011 after getting help for your depression. How are things now?

WH: Things are great now. I actually recovered relatively quickly. For the majority of my time at U of M I was recovered. I have been talking to, you know, other student-athletes and other people about it and just encouraging them to open up, to share their story, and it’s been great. It’s something I’m passionate about and really care about. So things are great now.

This segment aired on September 28, 2013.


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