U of M program successfully addresses mental illness

By Multimedia Editor

There has been much talk about illness on college campuses, and colleges are slowly adjusting to combat these issues. However, there is one sector that needs more attention—student athletes.

In a 2014 survey of approximately 7,000 students from nine colleges and universities, only 10 percent of athletes used mental health services compared to the 30 percent of nonathletic students, according to the Healthy Bodies Study. Within this group, 47 percent agreed that most people think less of someone who received mental health treatment. 

In light of these statistics, the NCAA has given the University of Michigan a $50,000 grant so the college can begin to promote its new Athletes Connected program. The program is a collaboration between the university’s Depression Center, School of Public Health and Athletics Department that will work to ensure its athletes are receiving proper mental healthcare. In addition to the U of M grant, the NCAA awarded five  $10,000 grants to other universities. 

One way the university is getting the message out about Athletes Connected is by uploading videos of prominent student athletes who have dealt with mental illness during their collegiate athletic careers. These videos, directed by William Del Rosario, are a monumental step in the arduous process of addressing and breaking down the negative stigma surrounding mental illness. 

The university has currently only uploaded two videos. The first features U of M football player Will Heininger sharing his intense battle with depression, which he said had “run a sledgehammer through [his] life.” However, he did find a way out: an observant athletic trainer at the college helped Heininger begin therapy. 

Kally Fayhee, a former U of M swim captain, starred in the second Athletes Connected video and discussed her struggle with an eating disorder. Fortunately, when she finally talked to her coach at U of M, the coach understood.

The negative stigma against mental health can be deadly. When someone is too afraid to come forward, it leaves those around him or her in the dark and unable to get a loved one the help he or she desperately needs. Athletes Connected uses the honesty of athletes letting their guard down and describing their personal journeys to foster solidarity among students, and the positive response it has gotten so far should serve as a beacon of hope for those struggling or those needing to understand any form of mental illness.

Drew Pinsky, a famous California-based addictions specialist, has seen the effects of patients hiding mental illness firsthand. After Robin Williams’ very publicized suicide, Pinsky spoke out about the dangers of not getting help on his show, “Dr. Drew on Call” on HLN. 

“It is a really important thing to remind ourselves that these are medical conditions that are serious,” Pinsky said. “If anyone has a loved one or they themselves are struggling with this sort of thing, please take advantage of treatment and stay with it.” 

Mental illness is not something to overlook. Talking to a professional about what is happening is not a sign of weakness. If going to therapy were easy, everyone would do it. However, therapy can be incredibly expensive, sometimes costing up to $175 per session. Happily most colleges offer a number of free sessions for students to take advantage of. Columbia offers 10 free sessions to its students per academic year. Formal therapy is understandably not for everyone, which is why it is incredibly important to note how the director of the videos decided to end them.

Near the end of the videos, Del Rosario showed U of M coaches expressing how they are there to help student athletes and are available to support anyone who is struggling. U of M softball coach Carol Hutchins urged students not to suffer in silence and to take advantage of the fact that the coaches’ doors are always open.

Fayhee highlights another far-reaching effect of mental illness: If one is not personally experiencing symptoms of mental illness, someone else in his or her life may be and those close to them need to be vigilant in detecting any dangerous behavior.

These videos are not only for athletes. They pull mental illness out from under the rug that society likes to sweep it under. Fayhee and Heininger serve as an example of how anyone can be suffering. However, there is hope and help available for those who seek it. 

Athletes are often seen as role models and as the standard for strength and resilience, but that perception may add unrealistic pressures for athletes. Now that well-respected athletes are beginning to share their stories, the world will definitely be watching and more students should quickly follow suit. 

For more information about the U of M’s new program, read the article, “NCAA, University of Michigan team up to fight mental illness” on Page 13.