Mental Health Game Plan

Ashira Morris / March 13, 2017

At the University of Michigan, Athletes Connected is making mental health an accessible topic for student athletes

When Emily Klueh was swimming for the University of Michigan, her struggle with body image, self-confidence, and desire to perform athletically at a high level manifested as an eating disorder.

Her coach noticed and recommended that she see one of the counselors within the athletic department. She took his advice and worked with Greg Harden, who is now the Executive Associate Athletic Director of student athlete health and welfare, for the rest of her time on the swimming and diving team. Through their sessions, she was able to work through her challenges with self-confidence and self-acceptance and learned to establish healthy, preventative habits for her overall mental health.   

When she graduated, she competed as a professional swimmer for Team USA, continuing to use the skills she learned from her work with Harden. After graduating, she had a two-year stint in California with a professional swim team and then returned to Ann Arbor to complete a master’s degree in social work – as well as finish out her professional swimming career – inspired by the support she had received from Harden.

“I wanted to be able to give back to student athletes and impact them how he impacted me,” she said. “I wanted to be an advocate not just for mental health issues but for taking ownership of your mental health.”

She’s now a program coordinator for Athletes Connected and an athletic counselor in the Athletic Department. Athlete’s Connected is a program launched by the University of Michigan in 2014 to make student athletes more aware of mental health issues and more comfortable seeking help. Immediate response to the program surprised even its founders and advocates.

Athletes Connected is a collaboration between the University’s School of Public Health, the Depression Center, and the Athletic Department, based upon the understanding that student athletes face a stronger stigma and higher barriers to treating their mental health. Given the “no pain no gain” mentality present in sports, they often feel expected to tough out difficulties instead of being vulnerable. Help seeking can be perceived as a weakness.

Previous research on student athletes notes that they face both internal and external pressure to perform at a high level. Student athletes are often campus celebrities and role models who strive to appear perfect while suffering the debilitating stress that can come from seeking that very perfection.

There is also a belief among student athletes that being open about a personal health issue could cause a coach to put them on the bench, or make their teammates less confident in their ability to perform during a game.

Over 20 percent of student athletes report symptoms of depression.

“We know that is hard to get student athletes to be willing to ask for help,” Barb Hansen, one of the school’s Athletics Department counselors, said. “Any opportunity we can have to try and help our student athletes feel freer and more comfortable to ask for help, the better.”

Statistically, Klueh’s experience working with a counselor was uncommon. Roughly 70 percent of student athletes who could benefit from help do not utilize mental health resources. Athletes Connected is changing those numbers on the Michigan campus.

“I’ve really seen a shift in conversation,” Klueh said. “We’ve seen student-athletes taking ownership of their mental health. I see that stigma going down.”  

The program was initially conceived by Daniel Eisenberg, an associate professor in Michigan’s School of Public Health, and Trish Meyer, the Program Director for Outreach and Education at the school’s Depression Center. Both professionals independently noticed that the National Collegiate Athletic Association was awarding grants for projects specific to mental health in student athletes. Eisenberg and Meyer had previously worked together on the Healthy Minds Network, an ongoing interdisciplinary research project on the mental and emotional health of young adults.

They reached out to Barb Hansen in the Athletics Department to draft a proposal.

The team received full funding from the NCAA to run a pilot program. In September of 2014, after convening an advisory council of students, coaches, and counselors, the program launched.

Athletes Connected consists of brief, high-production-value videos designed to reduce stigma and encourage student athletes to seek help and develop coping skills; informational presentations to all coaches and athletes; and informal support group sessions facilitated specifically for student athletes.

The introductory one-hour presentation consisted of an educational overview of mental health as it relates to student-athletes, followed by the screening of two videos of student athletes discussing their personal struggles with — and coping mechanisms for — mental health issues.

The videos featured former UM athletes Will Heininger, a football player talking openly about his depression and the tactics he uses to manage it, and Kally Fayhee, a swimmer who discusses her eating disorder and body image issues, as well as her coping strategies.

“I learned that depression is a diagnosed illness,” Will says at the end of his video. “It’s common, especially among college students. 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.”

The strength of the videos is their candor: Both portray mental health as a counterpart to the physical health management that athletes are so familiar with: something that requires healthy habits of its own, so it doesn’t become a crisis.

The narrative videos have shorter companion videos focused entirely on coping strategies. The student athletes from the videos were available after the presentations to answer questions. The presentation also included information about how to support a teammate who might be struggling and strategies for self-care. It wrapped up with information about athletic counseling and the Athletes Connected drop-in support groups.

Every University of Michigan student athlete saw the presentation. So did the Athletic Department and all varsity team coaches, who were on board from the beginning.

Some coaches were part of the advisory council that informed the videos; some appeared at the end to explicitly state that they will support their athletes who come to them with a mental health concern.

“We realized coaches were key to whether or not this program would be successful,” Meyer said.

The coaches see their athletes daily and often develop close relationship. Many student athletes cited retribution or lack of understanding from a coach as a reason they would not seek help for a mental health issue. By bringing the presentation to the coaches first, Athletes Connected could assure students that their coaches understood that taking the time to take care of their mental health would make them perform better on the field, and wasn’t a sign of weakness.

The response to the program was strong and swift. In the fall of 2014, every sports team at Ann Arbor saw the Athletes Connected presentation.

After watching the videos and having an open conversation about the mental health options available to them, student athletes filled out a survey. Sixty-three percent reported that mental health had hurt their performance in last four weeks. Nearly everyone said they were likely to use the information presented.

The athletics counseling center received 40 new appointment requests following the presentations — the biggest surge in appointments Hanson has seen in her decade in the athletic counseling office.

“Our goal now is to keep conversation going,” she said. “We can’t be a one-hit wonder.”

Now, every incoming freshman student athlete gets the full presentation. Sophomores, juniors, and seniors receive short follow-up sessions, with an emphasis on preventative mental health care.

After the first year, some of the athletes have taken it upon themselves to be unofficial ambassadors for the program. Michael Hendrickson, a junior pitcher for the baseball team and the current president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, put promoting mental health and wellness at the top of his agenda as president. Under his leadership, SAAC formed a mental health subcommittee within the advisory group, bringing together athletes from different teams.

Hendrickson, who was a freshman the first year Athletes Connected existed, found Michigan to be a progressive, open environment. Unlike his high school team, where the barriers to bringing up mental health concerns were high, he felt comfortable talking about them in college right from the beginning.

“Michigan does an amazing job of making everyone feel at home here,” he said. “Athletes Connected is by athletes, for athletes. Administrators can put programs in place, but there’s no guarantee of buy-in from student athletes.”

The subcommittee is working on a policy to create mental health liaisons on each team. These student athletes would be trained to facilitate conversations around issues ranging from coping strategies to suicide prevention.  

“You’ll have at least one person in every locker room who has been trained by mental health professionals to have these conversations,” Hendrickson said.

But beyond the work that they’re doing, the simple fact that the subcommittee exists as an offshoot of the original Athletes Connected effort shows the cumulative effect of starting something important.

To Eisenberg, the peer-to-peer encouragement is huge.

“The personal stigma is not very high,” he said, “but they are often worried about their status on teams or with their coaches and showing weakness to others.”

This fall, the Athletes Connected team produced a new video focused on preventative mental health care featuring a member of the men’s gymnastics team. They have begun meeting with individual teams for casual discussions about prioritizing mental health and making self care easier.

The program will continue to grow and adapt, but the core message to student athletes is still the same: Your mental health deserves to be strengthened, stretched, and discussed just as much as your physical health.