The topic of depression has been back in the spotlight in recent weeks with Robin Williams’ suicide, and one of the NFL’s own is on the front lines fighting this affliction.
A battle that is deeply personal for former Detroit Lions Quarterback Eric Hipple, who over lunch recently at the Providence Airport started the conversation by stating that he himself has had bouts with depression and had also lost a teenage son to suicide.
But rather than let these experiences beat him, he drew on his football toughness to go on the offensive and wage war against this illness, which included authoring a book titled “Real Men Do Cry.”
Hipple does this as an Outreach Specialist for the University of Michigan Depression Center (UMDC), where he hits the road often to speak with a wide variety of audiences, including football players, teenagers, and the military, who had brought him last week to the submarine base in Groton, CT to talk with a United States Navy audience, after which he flew home from Providence.
But before he left, he was happy to sit down and discuss how his audiences can be connected and in fact cross over, particularly the remarkable rapport between the NFL and the military.
“An NFL player transitioning out of the game is literally experiencing trauma because of the psychological consequences that come with it, and every single NFL player has trouble with transition,” said Hipple, who runs a depression program for former players with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA).
Not surprisingly, to deal with the pain of no longer being in the NFL, Hipple will tell transitioning players to follow something he knows well, the military approach of Operation Stress Control.
“I preach OSC’s five tenets, which are predictability, controllability, trust, relationship, and meeting, and those five things are suddenly gone when they leave the game,” noted the 10-year NFL veteran, adding that he tells them to try and manage these five areas to find the stress-free zone.
Of those, Hipple concentrates on controllability, emphasizing, “The one thing we can control is us, and what we do about not playing football for probably the first time in our lives.”
The stakes are high, said the1980 Utah State graduate who played his entire NFL career in Detroit during the decade of the 1980s.
“When a player’s career ends, he can suddenly have depression, situational or otherwise, which can affect both the brain and the body while presenting itself as grief, hypertension, weight gain, and loss of sleep. Stress takes its toll and these former players can feel like they are freaking out.”
Which is why he is involved in more than just depression discussion, he is also focusing on Mental Fitness.
“We actively promote former players supporting veterans, such as joining in a campaign called ‘Real Warriors,’ which included sending NFL veterans to military bases to watch playoff games with soldiers,” said Hipple, adding that part of the program also includes Public Service Announcements (PSAs).
And this is just one of his myriad of activities in the football field, which in addition to his NFLPA and “Under the Helmet” efforts, also includes an overall Sports Evaluation and Consultancy at UMDC and an “After the Impact’ program on Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) with the Eisenhower Center.
Yet another fit with football given the NFL’s partnership with the U.S. Army to study TBIs, that was announced two years ago this month.
But TBIs and other factors associated with depression clearly affect another audience – teenagers.
The crossovers are everywhere here, starting with subjects like substance abuse, that often is faced by high school students, some of whom play football and/or others who may join the military, and even some who do both.
“I have been speaking to this audience for the past five years or so, and what started as a small program for schools turned into a larger program for high school athletes and coaches,” stated the Lubbock, TX native.
“Teenagers are wired differently, and think differently than we did, particularly now with technology where they are producers of information, where we were receivers of information,” recalls Hipple, emphasizing that they are involved and not bystanders, thereby better able to recognize choices.
These choices can become overwhelming at a young age or any age for that matter, with substance abuse often a contributor to suicide, noted Hipple, who has had extensive training in suicide prevention models.
“With Robin Williams, it was well documented that depression and substance abuse were part of the picture, which apparently included numerous rehabilitation stays as well,” observed Hipple. “But it ended in suicide, so it all feeds into it.”