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Female swimmer featured in NCAA videos by U-M.

Mastering the mind

By Laurel Thomas Gnagey
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Program to raise awareness and encourage discussion about mental health issues among student-athletes nets overwhelmingly positive response.

Some 63 percent of student-athletes participating in U-M’s pilot Athletes Connected Program reported having an emotional or mental health issue that affected their athletic performance in the four weeks prior to the survey.

More than 90 percent of U-M’s 900-plus student-athletes took part in the program. Of those participating, 96 percent said they were likely to use what they learned, either to help themselves or others.
That statistic reveals how important it is to integrate discussions of mental health issues into the University’s culture, says Daniel Eisenberg, associate professor of health management and policy at the U-M School of Public Health.

“It says to me these issues already are on people’s minds,” says Eisenberg, who also holds positions with the Institute for Social Research and the Depression Center. “It might not be in the forefront. It might not be in regular conversation. But I think there’s a lot of interest and need for this general initiative.”

Athletes Connected is a partnership among the School of Public Health, the Depression Center, and the U-M Athletic Department, and funded by an NCAA Innovations in Research grant. As part of the program, launched in fall 2014, student-athletes were surveyed before and after participating in educational presentations to all 31 athletic teams, and taking part in drop-in support groups that were offered biweekly.

More than 90 percent of U-M’s 900-plus student-athletes took part in the program. Of those participating, 96 percent said they were likely to use what they learned, either to help themselves or others.

A need to “be tough”

Previous research has shown one in three students experiences significant symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions. Yet only about 30 percent of these students seek help, and that number goes down to only 10 percent for student-athletes. Eisenberg says some of the core traits of athletes, including the need to “be tough,” often lead them to ignore their mental health needs.

To address this concern, U-M received the largest of six NCAA awards to develop mental health initiatives for student-athletes, and to evaluate their impact. The $50,000 grant helped fund two videos with former athletes sharing their struggles with mental illness, and two videos on coping skills. The grant also funded presentations to all U-M athletic teams, and biweekly support groups.

Were you a student-athlete? Tell us what you think of this new initiative.
After viewing videos featuring former football player Will Heininger and swimmer Kally Fayhee, 99 percent of participants said the pieces were engaging and relevant for them or for other student-athletes. And for athletes who participated in the drop-in support groups, 92 percent said they expected to use the coping skills and other strategies learned during the sessions.

Preliminary results measuring the recall of concepts presented in two coping skills videos — when compared with reading an article on the same topic — show student-athletes better retained the information presented in videos. They also were more likely to report using the self-care strategies from the videos, and to have talked with a health professional about mental health.

The statistic of particular interest to Barbara Hansen, athletic medical staff counselor, is that following the team presentations, 40 students indicated they would like an appointment with a counselor to address an immediate concern.

“Student-athletes really found the presentations to be beneficial,” Hansen says. “It helped some of them to speak out and, for the first time, really seek help for some of the struggles they were having.”

The results are in

Read responses to the NCAA presentation.
During a presentation at an NCAA convention in January, the research team members highlighted next steps, which likely will involve new testimonial videos, more presentations, and additional training opportunities for student-athletes. The researchers also hope to engage more student-athletes in developing and implementing the program.

“We’re looking forward to continuing our collaboration here on campus, and we hope down the line to have a model we can disseminate to other campuses nationwide,” says Trish Meyer, manager for outreach and education at the U-M Depression Center.

The Athletes Connected project team will present their research findings again at the University of Michigan Depression on College Campuses Conference, March 11-12 in Ann Arbor.

Laurel Thomas Gnagey

Laurel Thomas Gnagey

LAUREL THOMAS GNAGEY has been at the University of Michigan for 12 years, the last two of them in the Michigan News office. She began her career as a reporter and anchor for radio and television. She later worked in public relations for a small hospital and a chamber of commerce in Northern Michigan, and prior to U-M at a statewide social service agency, serving as director of communications. She has held faculty positions in broadcast journalism, journalism, and public relations. Follow Thomas Gnagey on Twitter: @UM_EdSchool, @UM_SPH, and @laurelthom.