Empty gymnasium

Sound Body, Sound Mind

Donors provide mental health support for student-athletes

Student athlete sits along in empty stadium.
Many student-athletes experience mental health problems like depression and anxiety. The Athletes Connected program aims to increase awareness of mental health issues, reduce the stigma around help-seeking, and promote positive coping skills among student-athlete

Between hours of practice, attending class, and finding time for all else that makes up a U-M education, being a student-athlete is one of the most demanding roles on campus. Thanks to campaign donations totaling over $22 million, Michigan Athletics was able to develop a holistic approach for helping student-athletes excel under pressure.

Programming support for U-M student-athletes is abundant and diverse. Programs provide strong academic support, leadership education, and career preparation through a variety of comprehensive services. International experiences offer opportunities abroad, allowing student-athletes to expand their worldviews by becoming immersed in different cultures.

Perhaps most importantly, health and wellness initiatives provide student-athletes with the resources necessary to maintain their well-being. In 2014, Michigan Athletics worked alongside the U-M Depression Center and the School of Public Health to launch Athletes Connected. The program aims to raise awareness, reduce stigma, and promote help-seeking for mental health issues, as well as teach positive coping skills.

Will Heininger (AB ’11) was a sophomore defensive linemen when depression struck. “It’s hard to remember the exact day I fell apart,” he said. “Every day had become a bad day. I’m from Ann Arbor and I was playing football for the University of Michigan. Yet here I was, 19 years old and hating my life. I had no motivation, no pleasure in anything. How can I keep living if every day, every hour, every minute was so difficult? I didn’t realize it then, but depression had run a sledgehammer through my life.”

Heininger sought help through Athletes Connected, which had caught the attention of former Interim Donald R. Shepherd Director of Athletics Jim Hackett (BGS ’77) and his wife, Kathy Hackett. The couple donated half of Jim’s salary from his tenure as athletic director—$300,000—to support the continued development and expansion of the program. Their support has allowed the program to undertake new research initiatives to improve our understanding of how mental health affects student-athletes’ performance—both athletically and academically. Funds have also expanded outreach efforts and the Athletes Connected Wellness Groups, which provide ongoing education and support.

“We both believe that mental health touches everyone in all facets of life,” Jim Hackett said. “The nature of the sports world suggests that athletes are more fit and more perfect than the rest of the population but, as we know, they are just people too. We wanted to bring visibility to the challenges that athletes can have with issues like depression.”

With the resources Athletes Connected provides, student-athletes like Heininger can overcome obstacles brought on by mental health issues and go on to thrive at U-M and beyond. Heininger graduated as a four-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree. He now works as an outreach coordinator for the U-M Depression Center, supporting other student-athletes through the Athletes Connected program. “Because I opened up and got help, I became a better football player, a better student, a better friend, and a better person,” he said. “In hindsight, overcoming depression was the greatest blessing of my life.”

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