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U of M rolls out pilot program to offer mental health support to student-athletes

A pilot program to help student-athletes cope with mental health problems is under way at the University of Michigan.

Daniel Eisenberg, associate professor at the U of M School of Public Health, is responsible for evaluating the program's effectiveness. He said the program aims to educate student-athletes about mental health issues – and to reduce the stigma of getting help.

"We found in our data that it's about one out of three college students who at any given time are experiencing a significant mental health issue, like a depression or anxiety disorders," Eisenberg said, adding that only about 10% of student-athletes with these symptoms seek help, compared with 30% of students overall.

Barb Hansen, a counselor in the University's Athletic Department, said student-athletes can be deterred by fear of negative judgment from their coaches or teammates or by the misguided view that they should tough it out alone.  "Our real hope is that mental health issues begin to be talked about like any other injury or illness - that this is just part of what some people experience in life," she said.

The pilot produced videos of two former Michigan athletes who shared their stories about their psychological difficulties and the professional help they got.

The first video features Kally Fayhee, a former UM swimmer.

The second video focuses on former UM football player, Will Heininger.

By next week, the two athletes will have discussed the videos and their experiences in groups of 50 to 100 with about 900 members of 31 UM teams.

Hansen said the student-athletes are surveyed at the end of these sessions . She said the sessions have been well-received and there has been in an increase in students asking for help. In addition to individual counseling, the program is offering ongoing, drop-in support groups for student athletes to address the particular pressures they face.

The pilot program, called "Athletes Connected,"  is a collaborative effort by the UM School of Public Health, Athletic Department, and Depression Center.  It  was funded with a $50,000 grant from the inaugural NCAA Innovations in Research and Practice Grant Program.  UM was one of six schools chosen by the NCAA for the $100,000 of available funding.

The UM research team will present its findings at the NCAA Convention in Washington, D.C. in January 2015.

Virginia Gordan, Michigan Radio Newsroom