INDIANAPOLIS | With the NCAA set to hold its first summit on mental health care in college athletics, here, next month, it hosted the National Athletic Trainers' Association last month for a press conference on the issue.
The comments of various medical experts made during that event were covered in this space two weeks ago. Among the facts to be highlighted was the frequency of mental health disorders. For those who are college-age, it is a surprising 20-25 percent.
After the sports medics had their say from the podium, one speaker was left -- to give a face to the problem. His was a face and story you might not expect.
Will Heininger was a defensive tackle, four-time Academic All-Big Ten Winner and Distinguished Scholar at the University of Michigan before graduating in 2011. However, near the end of his freshman year his parents divorced and he went into a deep depression – and, at first, shared his pain with nobody except his mother.
One day at the end of a practice, though, Wolverine athletic trainer Lenny Navitskis noticed Heininger with tears in his eyes for no apparent reason. Navitskis pulled the athlete aside and asked what was going on. When given an answer, he immediately took Heininger to the office of athletic department social worker Barb Hansen.
"(Her) office was in the football building where I spent the majority of my life," said Heininger, "and I had never known it."
If the Michigan athletic department is to be faulted, it would be only for inadequate communication with athletes regarding resources. The fact is that UM is one of only about 30 major college athletic programs in the country with an in-house mental health specialist. They actually have two.
"A combination of good therapy from Barb, the right medicine, and love from family and friends helped me climb out from the depths of this horrible disease," Heininger recalled.
Today, Heininger describes himself as happy, healthy, and living and working in Chicago.
He hopes for a future where the stigma associated with mental illness is removed.
Asked about the dearth of mental health specialists in major college athletic programs and the expense of adding such personnel, Heininger offered a unique perspective in reply. “Wouldn’t you want the healthiest student athletes that you can have?” he asked rhetorically. “Wouldn’t you want the best mental health care providers and the best program in the country? It’s all recruiting now and everyone knows that. So if you’re talking to a parent and you’re trying to get their 18-year-old-son or daughter to come to your school, wouldn’t you want (your program) to be rock solid?
The NATA has published the “Inter-Association Recommendations for Developing a Plan to Recognize and Refer Student Athletes With Psychological Concerns at the Collegiate Level” in the current issue of the Journal of Athletic Training. To access the statement online go to www.nata.org/sites/default/files/psychologicalreferral.pdf.
Athletic administrators, coaches, and sports medics at the high school level would do well to read it. Parents, too.