Athletes Connected: Fighting the hidden battles
Garrick Roemer was scared. The 17-year-old wasn’t comfortable in the back of the ambulance. He didn’t want to be there, and on the surface, it didn’t look like he belonged there either.
His mom, Cathy Radovich, overheard him nervously asking the paramedics if his emergency trip to the hospital was going to follow him, if people were going to hear about it.
Outside that ambulance, Roemer seemed to be living out a reality he had strived for. As a 2012 graduate of Saline High School and lifelong Michigan fan, he grew up a hop, skip and a jump away from Ann Arbor as he ran to an All-State title in the 400-meter dash. He committed to Michigan’s track and field team as a preferred walk-on, rejecting a partial scholarship from Michigan State in order to don the maize and blue. There are pictures of Roemer dressed in Michigan apparel from the age of 2 onward, and a scholarship offer from his rival wasn’t going to sway him. He came to Ann Arbor to fulfill his dream.
But you can’t always tell what’s really going on from the outside looking in.
On that day, the future Michigan track athlete didn’t want to go to the hospital, didn’t want to talk about his problems — but Radovich knew he needed to. The spring of his senior year of high school was difficult for Roemer, so after consulting his therapist, Radovich called the paramedics, and Roemer reluctantly got in the ambulance.
He looked physically healthy, and he wasn’t sick in the traditional sense. But he had threatened to hurt himself in front of people at school, and that was enough cause for alarm.
When people suffer from a heart attack or a stroke, they don’t worry about seeking medical attention. But when people need an emergency psychiatric evaluation, they very rarely seek the help they need. Sitting in an ambulance with his life in danger, Roemer was wondering what other people would think.
For most athletes, the biggest battle takes place internally. And far too often, that struggle goes unheard.
A 2014 study conducted by Dr. Daniel Eisenberg and Ph.D. candidate Sarah Ketchen Lipson at the University showed that of a random sample of approximately 7,000 students at nine colleges, just 30 percent of those with depression or anxiety sought mental health services.
For student-athletes, the statistic was even lower. Just 10 percent of student-athletes with depression or anxiety used mental health services.
In May 2014, following his second year at Michigan, Roemer committed suicide. According to Radovich, a “perfect storm” of events had hit her son, including injury and an isolating redshirt sophomore year that prevented him from traveling with his teammates.
“I think stigma really was a part of what stopped him from getting the help he needed, and that’s kinda why I’m here (talking about it),” Radovich said. “Whether you’re an athlete or not, it hovers over you.”
Almost two years later, on Jan. 22 of this year, Radovich sat at a table describing the thoughts she believed her son may have had that spring day. The only way the stigma would go away was if she talked about it.
Sitting next to her was Will Heininger, a former Michigan football player who left his job in Chicago when he realized that he wanted to join Athletes Connected, a University organization dedicated to supporting student-athlete mental health and one of the first programs of its kind.
On that Friday afternoon, the Athletes Connected Advisory Board — a sort of “think tank” for current and former student-athletes, interested community members, clinicians and psychiatrists to suggest ways to improve mental health on campus — met for the second time.
The Athletes Connected initiative first formed when Eisenberg, an associate professor in the School of Public Health, saw a posting for the NCAA Innovations in Research and Practice Grant. He learned about the grant about the same time as Trish Meyer, the manager for outreach and education at the University’s Depression Center, and the two reached out to Barb Hansen, one of three athletic counselors employed by the Michigan Athletic Department.
In April 2014, the Athletes Connected initiative received a $50,000 grant to conduct research on student-athlete mental health. Athletes Connected was born as a partnership between the School of Public Health, Depression Center and Athletic Department, with the major goals being to reduce the stigma of mental health issues, promote coping skills and encourage help-seeking. The group moved quickly, conducting student-athlete and athletic trainer focus groups over the summer.
Throughout the 2014-15 school year, Athletes Connected presented to every athletic team and its coaching staff, and provided biweekly 75-minute support groups with a clinical social worker for student-athletes who wanted to listen or share their experiences dealing with stress.
Athletes Connected first told the coaches about the initiative in September 2014, and then checked back in to update them with results in May 2015.
Next, they opened up the floor for questions.
Which coach put his hand in the air first? Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh.
“He started asking questions and then other coaches got involved,” Meyer said. “It was really, really encouraging and heartening because they care so much for their student-athletes and they want to know that there’s a system in place that going to support them in that way.”
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Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein has seen a lot over his 40 years of coaching. Like Harbaugh, he was an active participant during the Athletes Connected presentation, and for good reason.
“Over my (career), I’ve probably had four or five kids with depression,” Beilein said. “During that time, I was virtually helpless as a coach. I would talk to them and there wasn’t anything happening. They needed clinical help. That’s why this is so important.”
He’s a strong believer in the power that mindfulness can bring to the court and even cites a time that Jordan Morgan, a former Michigan captain, added meditation to his game-day routine to alleviate any nerves about free-throw shooting.
Morgan, a subpar foul shooter who made 56.5 percent of his free throws in his career, made seven of eight shots in a 2014 NCAA Tournament game against Texas. Beilein credits the standout performance to the fact that Morgan happened to meditate three times that day, focusing on seeing himself make foul shots.
It’s not uncommon for seasoned coaches to get stuck in their ways. Beilein has run the same offense his entire career, but he readily admits that his viewpoints on mental health have changed over time, especially as he started to grasp what was really at stake with his athletes.
“That’s all he needed, was someone to talk to.”
Back in his playing days, Heininger decided to talk to someone, and it changed his life.
According to a video featuring Heininger on the Athletes Connected website — the same video Athletes Connected shows every Michigan athlete — he started “hating himself and his life” and had “all the classic symptoms of depression, but didn’t know what it was” during his sophomore year of college.
As an Ann Arbor native who attended Pioneer High School, which sits kitty-corner to Michigan Stadium, he dreamed of playing football at Michigan. He had no idea why he was feeling the way he was.
Finally, an athletic trainer noticed he was in pain and set him up with Barb Hansen, the Michigan athletic counselor now involved with Athletes Connected. They worked on coping techniques, highlighted by the video, and he opened up and stopped hiding his feelings. Ultimately, he recovered from depression and became a “better student, player and person.”
Now, Heininger is 27 and teaches new athletes the same coping techniques Hansen taught him. Athletes Connected is hoping its presentations help student-athletes realize why they feel the way they do so they don’t get caught in the dark like he once did.
“In a cool way, just knowing — like I didn’t even know what depression was, right? I had no idea what had happened to me,” Heininger said. “But I’ve had a number of freshmen now, who are like, ‘Yeah, I get it. If there’s something off with my mood, then I can do something about it, just like if there’s something off with my knee, I can do something with it.’ ”
Heininger often makes that analogy, that, as an athlete, if there’s something wrong with your body, you take care of it immediately. He wants every athlete to know that issues with mental health can be handled in the same fashion.
That’s why, after two years of working a finance job in Chicago, Heininger decided to come home to Ann Arbor. When he received the call asking if he would like to come back and work with his former counselor as well as Eisenberg and Meyer, he experienced a moment of “serendipity.”
“It was like, what do I want to spend my days doing, like what matters to me?” Heininger said. “And that was during the time that I was realizing how critical mental health is and its impact on society.”
Heininger may have left his job, but he found his calling.
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When Jaimie Phelan first saw e-mails and fliers about the new Athletes Connected meetings, she was instantly curious. The junior cross country and track athlete didn’t say anything the first few times she went, but not too long after hearing others open up, she did, too.
She found out that most other athletes felt the same pressures she did.
“At a young age, a lot of athletes are taught to tough things out and fight through the pain,” Phelan said. “For our everyday life and for our own mental health, it’s not always the best approach to tough things out, and I think a lot of us struggle with that, too, to be able to take a step back and say, ‘All right, I need to take a day off,’ or ‘All right, I need to rest for a bit for my mental health if I’m mentally drained.’ It’s like the same as a physical injury.”
She felt the same sense of belonging when she first saw the initial Athletes Connected presentations. Athletes Connected always shows the same two videos, one featuring Heininger and the techniques he used to overcome depression, and one featuring Kally Fayhee, a former Michigan swimmer who overcame an eating disorder.
“That hit a lot of us hard, just being able to hear someone else’s story and have them share and be a part of all of us, too, that gave a powerful message,” Phelan said. “It helped me open up more, and I wanted to go to Athletes Connected to help deal with any stressors that came on.”
After the presentations, every athlete took a survey, and 99 percent indicated that the videos were relevant to either themselves or their teammates.
More stunningly, 63 percent of student-athletes reported that “emotional or mental health issues” had affected their performance in the past four weeks. That means that more than half of student-athletes realize they’re experiencing emotional distress.
But if more than half of the student-athlete population is affected by emotional issues on a regular basis, then Athletes Connected has a problem. Though the organization is still conducting research on student-athletes, the attendance at its biweekly support groups has dipped.
In the first meeting of 2016, only one student-athlete showed up.
“We keep trying to find the magic spot,” Hansen said. “I think it’s a combination of things, why the attendance is so low. I think part of it is always that time crunch. There just isn’t that perfect ideal time. … I think there’s still, certainly for some people, that fear, that stigma of, ‘I don’t want to go and tell all my business or worry what people might think of me.’
“But at the same time, feedback is really consistent that they value hearing from other students in other sports, not just their teammates, that it’s an opportunity to get together with other people who are maybe experiencing some of the same challenges.”
Phelan — one of the few athletes who has taken advantage of the biweekly meetings — wholeheartedly agrees. The students care about the program, even if they can’t always find time for it. This year, they decided that Athletes Connected would be the beneficiary of the athletes’ annual Mock Rock charity event on Feb. 23.
“I think everyone that I’ve talked to who has been to Athletes Connected, when they’ve left, they’ve all said that it’s been beneficial,” she said. “It’s just the fact that they’re trying to get more people to go if they want to, and they don’t have to be clinically diagnosed, just go and sit, listen, and you never know how much it can help you.”
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When you first walk in to Barb Hansen’s office, you see a few words scrawled in dry-erase marker on her board. “Just a cold, dark night on Mt. Everest.”
At first glance, the words could mean anything. But you soon find out the words are applicable to nearly anyone who has taken on responsibility.
In March 2015, Dr. Alicia Crum gave a speech at the Depression on College Campuses Conference hosted by the University, Crum told a story about one especially late night working on her thesis, in which a colleague of hers consoled her by using that same phrase.
Hansen took note.
“When people climb Mount Everest, what do they expect?” Hansen said as she recounted Crum’s story. “They’re expecting it to be cold and miserable and harder than hell. … ‘I’ve chosen these things. Did I expect it to be without stress?’ Really reframing stress as, ‘You know, we choose these things and we’ll manage and we’ll get through.’ ”
The quote has worked for some of her student-athletes, allowing them to modify their view of stress to fit a healthier standpoint. It has stayed on the board since.
But it’s also applicable to college students everywhere. Though Athletes Connected is focused first on helping student-athletes, everyone on the team makes it clear that they fully intend on rolling it out to the general college population. As the de facto pioneer in studying student-athlete mental health on this grand of a scale, Athletes Connected wants to make sure they get it right first.
“Because it’s a collaboration between the Depression Center, Public Health and Athletics, we are able to use the momentum of this — which is specifically student-athlete mental health — to spill over to the rest of campus, high schools around the country,” Heininger said. “One of the things I’m most proud of in the past year is all of the interest from other colleges and universities.”
Added Eisenberg: “As a public health person, I’ve always been interested in having a wide impact on a large number of people. While I think the student-athlete population at Michigan is an important population, it’s still only 900 people, which is tiny compared to the whole U of M community.”
In the past year, Michigan club sports, ROTC and the marching band have reached out to Athletes Connected, seeking information on how to improve their students’ mental health.
“I would hope that there will be really useful information that generalizes to the college population,” Hansen said. “That’s my hope, because even if you think about the larger college population, there’s other schools and groups that are also performance-based. I think students across campus feel that pressure to do really well and to compete.”
There are three athletic counselors at Michigan. All three have packed schedules.
According to Hansen, it’s a rarity to have three counselors working just for an athletic department. But each counselor’s workload indicates that it’s a necessity.
After Athletes Connected showed the student-athletes the videos featuring Heininger and Fayhee, 40 indicated on the post-presentation survey that they would like to make an appointment with an athletic counselor to address “immediate concerns.”
If 40 students realized they wanted help after watching a few videos, then it’s not hard to imagine the impact programs like Athletes Connected could have on campuses across the country.
“A lot of schools have great facilities and a lot of schools will give athletes a lot of gear, and ‘Woo-hoo, it’s great,’ ” Heininger said. “But what about developing them as a person, what about if they’re not going to go pro?”
And that’s why Radovich is involved in Athletes Connected. Last year, all of the donations to the Garrick P. Roemer Memorial Fund went to the program. But more importantly than that, she’s talking about what happened to Garrick so other people know what they’re up against.
The stigma surrounding depression and anxiety may be hard to shake — especially for athletes — but this community is taking its best shot.
“If it just helps one other person … I think that even if Athletes Connected would have been here, he may still not be with us,” Radovich said. “But if it would have prevented it, I’ve got to do it. We have to try. We have to try to help other people.”