A sign of strength, not weakness

The need to be “tough”

Many student-athletes experience mental health problems such as stress, depression, and anxiety. However, for a variety of reasons, student-athletes often are more reluctant than their campus peers to seek help. According to the Michigan Depression Center, a recent study shows that while only one in three college students with depression or anxiety will access mental health services, this number drops dramatically to one in 10 for student-athletes who are struggling with a mental health concern

To address this issue, U-M recently developed the Athletes Connected Initiative with initial funding from an NCAA Innovations in Research and Practice grant. This collaboration between the U-M School of Public Health, the Depression Center, and the Athletic Department aims to eliminate the stigma of mental illness while improving the well-being of student-athletes.

In the following Q&A, John F. Greden, M.D., executive director of the Depression Center, describes U-M’s philosophy of supporting our young athletes’ mental health.

Michigan Today: As we head into a new academic year what would you like U-M fans to know (or remember) about the teams they are cheering and/or jeering?

John Greden: Student-athletes work tremendously hard every day. They want to compete and win, but they’re human. They get nervous about making mistakes and anxious they won’t succeed. They want so much to please their teammates, their coaches, their families, and friends. Their pulses are pounding at critical moments, they are tired, but they remain passionate about succeeding. And they may feel like a total failure if the team loses and they did not play as they would have wanted. Losing is hell. And it is so hard for student-athletes to put it all together when the crowd turns against the team, the coaches, or, God forbid, them. They are out there seeking to please you, the fan, the family. We need to let them know we have their backs.

MT: What should parents of student-athletes know about what their kids might be going through?

JG: Pressure, pride, publicity, admiration, cheering: They all go together. But they are accompanied by pain, injuries, limitations, fatigue — and criticism, if one falls short or complains. There’s also fear of being ostracized if they don’t follow the crowd. All these can be major roadblocks to success. Sports can be so exciting, so formative, but also anguishing. Many parents need to learn to “coach” by asking supportive questions — by listening, cheering, cajoling. And by loving. Listening and loving go a long way.

MT: What should parents of U-M student-athletes know about how the University supports their children?

JG: Student-athletes can learn so much from those who have already walked the walk. Even classmates a year or two ahead can be remarkably helpful. But if there are significant sleep disturbances, disabling anxiety, depression, any thoughts of ever not wanting to go on living, they need to seek an additional kind of help, from those who are experts in dealing with these problems, but who also understand athletes. U-M has an abundance of these resources. The Depression Center and Athletes Connected and the counseling team in the Department of Athletics do understand. And they know how to help. Remember, it is a sign of strength, not weakness, to get help.

MT: Let’s talk about John Bacon’s book, Playing Hurt,  and how it illuminates these issues through the life of late broadcaster John Saunders.

JG: John eloquently used John Saunders’ life story to illustrate that many — perhaps the majority — of players are bringing a great deal of stress, trauma, family conflict, and interpersonal turmoil as they enter college. This background gets confounded with the glory of athletics, even when things are going well. Of course there are the triumphs, but there are the traumas too.

In John Saunders’ life, his traumas, and his sometimes-misguided efforts to treat them, were complicated further by an array of injuries, which led to full-fledged depression. But as John Bacon wonderfully points out, [Saunders] managed to discover that it is a sign of real strength to talk and turn to family and friends, and if that is not enough, to promptly turn to experts to get the help needed.

Not only does this illustrate real courage, it can be lifesaving. And it serves as a role model for the new generation of student- and professional athletes. When a student-athlete, a former student-athlete, a pro athlete, or a retired pro athlete seeks help, she or he instantly can become a vocal testament to society. That is how one not only gets better, but stays better.
In addition to his role as executive director at U-M’s Comprehensive Depression Center, Greden also is the Rachel Upjohn Professor of Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences; research professor, molecular and behavioral neurosciences; and founding chair of the National Network of Depression Centers. He also is chair emeritus of U-M’s Department of Psychiatry.

(Top image: Michigan Photography.)


  1. Roger Szafranski - 1977

    Being a student athlete under Bo in the ’70s was a tremendous task! The emotions, anxiety, depression and a vast array of psychological diagnosis were abundant — this article doesn’t even scratch the surface.
    Maintaining your grades and competing with other students whose job it was to just go to school, the student athlete like me and other football players were required to be finished with our classes and in the locker-room by 2:30 to watch practice films from the previous day’s practice. Afterwards as a defensive lineman we were required to lift weights, get taped and dressed to be on the practice field half an hour before practice and run through drills. Practice involved two grueling hours of running plays in preparation for Saturday’s game. After practice, we had to rush to shower, dress, and get up to the Student Union where we had training table in the basement of the Student Union. Now its 7:00 and time to study if we did not have to go back to the football building for treatment for some injury. Now after a full day like that how much time and energy can you devote to actually studying? Not a lot. By 9:00 you were dead tired and nodding off; and tomorrow morning you have to get up and do it all over again.
    Now if this schedule was just the football season it would be one thing, but after the season were preparations for the Bowl game, then winter workouts throughout the winter, which ran into spring ball, which lasted until the end of the semester. Summer vacation, forget it. If you expected to play you were expected to stay the summer in Ann Arbor working out with the team. And of course, the NCAA doesn’t allow organized workouts, but miss one of them and you get a call from Bo’s secretary Lynn summoning you to Bo’s office. Not a pretty picture!
    So think about this the next time any of you students that look down your noses at the student athlete and sarcastically cuss them out because they are on a scholarship. It’s not just running out of the tunnel on a Saturday afternoon…believe me.


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