The video begins with the silhouette of a man carrying an athletic bag into a dark tunnel. The man, it emerges, is Will Heininger, a former University of Michigan (U-M) football player who, in 2008, as a 19-year-old defensive lineman, began feeling desperately sad and hopeless. Against a backdrop of hypnotic percussion and guitar, Heininger describes his sense of isolation at the time. “I didn’t realize it then,” he says, “but depression had run a sledgehammer through my life.”
But things turn around. An athletic trainer spotted Heininger in distress and helped get him into therapy. “Because I opened up and got help, I became a better football player, a better student, a better friend, and a better person,” Heininger says, now backed by subtly brighter music. “In hindsight, overcoming depression is the greatest blessing of my life.” Heininger emerges from the tunnel , followed by three quick cameos of U-M coaches—John Beilein, men’s basketball; Carol Hutchins, softball; and Brady Hoke, football—reassuring athletes to get help if they need it.
The video got its first official showing September 4, when U-M’s team coaches gathered for a group meeting. But Daniel Eisenberg, who leads the research team that produced the video, hopes it will be watched many more times, especially by college athletes. “One thing that’s different about student-athletes is that there is this culture of being tough and pushing through difficult situations through hard work and determination,” Eisenberg says. “That can be a deterrent from seeking help for athletes experiencing mental health issues.”
Eisenberg, a researcher at the Population Studies Center (PSC) at the Institute for Social Research (ISR), an associate professor of health management and policy at the School of Public Health, and a Depression Center faculty member, received a $50,000 grant from the NCAA under a new program focused on improving student-athlete well-being and mental health.
With the support of the grant, Eisenberg is working with colleagues at the School of Public Health, the Depression Center, and U-M’s Athletic Department to create a series of short videos like the one featuring Will Heininger, the former defensive lineman who now works as a mental health advocate. “We’re going to try to build up a whole library of videos so that if people like them and watch one once every week for a period of time, maybe we can have an impact.” Watch below a video featuring former U-M swimmer and team captain Kally Fayhee:
The team has also formed support groups tailored for college athletes, adapting an existing model from the Depression Center’s Campus Mind Works program, and has been presenting the programs and videos to coaches and athletes this fall.
The goal of the project, dubbed Athletes Connected, is to encourage student-athletes who are depressed or who just need additional education or support to reach out for help. For the research component, Eisenberg will run randomized trials comparing groups of athletes who watch the videos with control groups to see if the video watchers show improved help-seeking behaviors or coping skills.
“In the bigger picture, we’re also interested in whether people like these videos enough that they will share them with their friends and spread them through peer networks,” Eisenberg says. “For most interventions, you have to work really hard to get people into them. This one, we’re hoping, could spread naturally.”
Eisenberg’s research has focused on student mental health for several years. But there is scant research looking specifically at the mental health of college athletes, he says. Student-athletes don’t necessarily suffer mental illness at a rate higher than the general student population, he says. But the barriers to getting help may be higher because of a tough-it-out mentality or the fear of losing status on a team.
Eisenberg hopes the videos and support groups will become a permanent offering at U-M, and an inspiration to other college campuses. He’s also looking into ways that student filmmakers might contribute to future videos, and he’s working with ISR researchers Susan Murphy and Inbal Nahum-Shani on a mobile app for displaying the videos. “Ultimately, we hope it will be the beginning of a larger approach that will improve people’s mental health,” he says.
Eisenberg will present his findings along with the five other grant recipients in January at the 2015 NCAA Convention in Washington, D.C.