Getting Rid of Mental Health Stigma in Sport

Fortunately, mental health conversations have become more normalized in society, and it is becoming more and more okay to talk about, seek help and express feelings. This is exactly what Will Heininger, defensive end for the University of Michigan football team, did August of 2008. He had been struggling with depression and anxiety for a while and was holding in all his struggles. Having his parents going through divorce and the pressure and demands of university football had really gotten to him. At the end of practice one day he broke down in tears. Heininger said, “I didn’t have the energy to hold it back because I had been hiding it from everybody for so long every day.” 

Society tends to put athletes on a pedestal and see them at invulnerable compared to regular individuals. It is overlooked that athletes can also experience hard times, poor body image issues, and, of course, struggle with mental health. When athletes come out about their mental health struggles they can be seen as weak, or something is wrong with them.

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Will Heininger celebrating after a game. (Source: Global Sports Matter)

The athletic trainer of Michigan’s football team was trained in mental health and awareness and walked Heininger to the athletic counselor to seek help. He was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety. Heininger no longer plays football. He is now 29 and, in 2018, was working as an outreach coordinator for the UM Depression center as long with being an advocate speaker for mental health.  As well he is the poster boy for UM’s Athletes Connected program. 

Kathleen Firlotte

Featured Image: Will Heininger, Program Coordinator for University of Michigan. (Source: Kevin’s Song)

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