Former University of Michigan football player shares battle with depression

Will Heininger hopes to help others ask for help

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - "Every day had become a bad day. I'm from Ann Arbor, and I was playing football for the University of Michigan, and yet here I was, 19 years old, hating myself and my life."

It's a scene from a powerful video that shares the battle one athlete waged against depression.

It was the fall of 2008. On the outside, Will Heininger seemed to be living a dream -- playing football for the University of Michigan. But he was hiding a dangerous secret.

"I just started developing these thoughts, these just incredibly negative thoughts, like, 'Why are we here, why is life worth it,'" said Heininger. "It was such a shift from what I had ever experienced. I felt like going from 100 to zero just like that."

To watch Heininger's video, click here.

Studies find up to one in three college students experience depression. Heininger was one of them.

Pressure to get good grades, competing for playing time and his parents' crumbling marriage had created the perfect storm of stress. As Heininger's video shares:

"I had no motivation. No pleasure in anything. I had all the classic signs of depression, but didn't know what it was."

He tried to hide his pain.

"I made the wrong decision to, you know, to try to cover it up, to basically put my head down and tough it out," remembered Heininger.

Until one day, a team trainer realized something was wrong.

"I just felt the tears coming. I felt overwhelmed. I didn't care anymore, I was so low, and I broke down, and Lenny saw me, put his arm around me and just walked with me and said, 'Will, you will be fine, just come with me,'" said Heininger.

Heininger discovered help was readily available through athletic counselor Barb Hansen.

"I began to heal and learn what was going on with me and learn that this was common and learn this is called depression," said Heininger.

But taking that first step is often a huge hurdle.

"Athletes, from what we know, tend to be less likely to seek help for mental health," said Daniel Eisenberg, Ph.D., associate professor in Health Management & Policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Eisenberg has researched depression in student athletes and the reasons many are reluctant to seek help.

"What we are hearing from the athletes is that, first of all, there is a lot of concern about status on the team, what coaches will think, will it endanger my role, my playing time," said Eisenberg.

It's a sentiment echoed by Heininger.

"Part of depression, part of mental illness right is it makes you believe things that aren't true," said Heininger. "'I can't show anyone, I'll get kicked off the team, I'll lose playing time,' you know, 'I'm weak for this,' all these things that aren't true."

The same determination and drive that helps athletes succeed on the playing field can also prevent them from seeking help.

"They have a mentality that says, 'I need to just tough this out. I need to do this on my own,'" said Hansen.

Eisenberg says one in three students suffering depression will seek professional help. But in student-athletes, that number is just one in ten.

"Both of those are way too low, but one in ten is unacceptable," said Heininger.

Contrary to his fears, Heininger said his coaches, teammates and the University were incredibly supportive. He's now working with Eisenberg and a program called Athletes Connected to help change the culture of silence.

"If this can happen to anybody, and it's common, why don't we talk about it?" said Heininger.

Athletes Connected is a unique collaboration between the University of Michigan School of Public Health, the University of Michigan Depression Center and the Athletic Department. It was developed with initial funding from NCAA Innovations in Research and Practice Grant. Heininger's video is part of its educational campaign to teach athletes about depression and the benefits of seeking help.

"We've also been running some small support groups where student-athletes can come together and talk about issues related to mental health with a trained facilitator," said Eisenberg.

The program is working.

"We've seen at least 40 people immediately after each of those sessions reach out and ask for help, which is amazing," said Hansen.

"Student-athletes have said, 'Thank you for doing this,'" said Eisenberg. "There's sort of a sense that people have been wanting this."

Researchers hope to spread the information they're learning about student-athletes and depression.

"We're hearing from a lot of other schools, other colleges and universities and athletic communities, even people from high school and youth athletic communities," said Eisenberg. "A lot of people want to know how can we take some of what you're doing, some of what we are doing here, and apply it to our own communities."

Heininger hopes to help more athletes view mental health the way they view physical health.

"If I had an ACL injury or if I broke a bone, I would know what to do. I go to the trainers, I have support from my teammates, from my coaches," said Heininger.

Most of all, he wants everyone struggling to know -- there is hope.

"Know that it will get better. You know, I'm living proof and there are literally millions of people who are living proof," said Heininger.

"I learned that depression is diagnosed illness. It's common, especially among college students, and it can be treated. Because I opened up and got help, I became a better football player, a better student, a better friend and a better person. In hindsight, overcoming depression is the greatest blessing of my life."

To learn more about Athletes Connected, click here.

To watch Kally Fayhee's video, click here.

To find out more about the University of Michigan Depression Center, click here.

For more student resources on treating depression at the University of Michigan, click here.

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