Pilot program focuses on mental health for athletes

By Katie Penrod, For the Daily
Published January 21, 2015

The University is piloting a new program designed to draw attention to the mental health for student-athletes.

The program, which was piloted in the fall and included a public service videos and drop-in counseling sessions, drew participation from 90 percent of the University’s 931 student-athletes.

The program, which is a collaboration between the Athletic Department, the School of Public Health and the University’s Depression Center, is supported by an $50,ooo NCAA grant.

The pilot consisted of presentations that showed two videos in which two former student-athletes, former football player Will Heininger and former swimmer Kally Fayhee spoke about coping skills and their experiences with mental health.

In an e-mail interview with The Michigan Daily, Fayhee said prior to the pilot program, 33 percent of University students would seek help for mental illness, compared to only 10 percent of student-athletes. She decided to get involved and share her experiences after meeting Heininger.

“We found that we faced similar pressures, but those pressures just manifested themselves in different ways,” Fayhee wrote. “Knowing I was not alone in what I went through and that I should not be ashamed of my struggles was what motivated me. I came to realize that helping break down the stigmas surrounding mental health trumped hiding my struggles.”

Additionally, Heininger said there is a “tough it out” stigma among athletes, and this program aims to break that down. He said mental health issues are not all together different from physical injuries, and emphasized that the mind affects everything we do.

Barbara Hansen, athletic medical staff counselor, said the athletes had a significant impact on the students who participated.

“I think one of the more powerful, common reactions we’ve had is that students felt like they could really relate to the videos and stories from Will and Kally,” Hansen said.

The pilot program is part of a wider effort that began in October. At that time, the collaborators began holding drop-in meetings facilitated by a clinical social worker. At the meetings, Hansen said athletes completed surveys focused on mental wellness.

Hansen said they have resumed the groups for the winter semester, and are in the planning stages for the next academic year. As a result of the pilot, 40 students met with counselors.

“Feedback about the videos was overwhelmingly positive,” Hansen said. “It definitely opened up the door for some of our current student-athletes to decide to reach out for help.”