Quarterbacking Your Own Wellness: Tips from an NFL Pro

Fans of professional football are familiar with the career of quarterback Eric Hipple, who led the Detroit Lions for ten seasons in the 1980s.  But they may be less familiar with Hipple’s struggles off the field, battling his own depression and coping with the suicide of his 15-year-old son in 2000. 

Hipple’s memoir, “Real Men Do Cry,” published in 2008, chronicles his journey through depression to wellness. The book is a ‘must read’ for anyone who suffers from depression, and everyone coping with a family member’s depression or living in the wake of suicide. Recently, Hipple was profiled on the ESPN series Monday Night Countdown (watch the segment here).  As both the book and the interview show, his story is one of great sadness and tragedy, but also one of tremendous resilience in the face of mental illness. 

DepressionToolkit.org sat down with Hipple to pick up where that interview left off.  We wanted to learn more about overcoming depression from a real pro, so we asked him to show us his “playbook” for getting well and staying well.

DepressionToolkit.org (DT): As you tell it, you had a few false starts when it came to getting help for your depression. What finally “clicked” for you?    

Eric Hipple (EH): For me, the day I decided to get involved with and take responsibility for my own care was the day I started getting better.  Before that, plenty of doctors and other healthcare providers wrote prescriptions and made recommendations, but my attitude was always, “Okay, I did what you told me, now what?” 

It’s as if I looked at depression the same way I might have looked at broken leg – the doctor puts a cast on it to let it heal, and when the cast comes off, the leg is back to normal, with very little effort on the patient’s part. I didn’t really see treatment as a process that required my participation, so I wasn’t really working with them. It wasn’t until my son’s death that I finally realized that it wasn’t about someone else “fixing me” – it was about being completely honest, learning everything I could, and asking questions, getting answers and taking action.     

DT:  Let’s break down the different components of a typical treatment plan – medication, talk therapy and self-care –and how you put them to work in your life.  Start with the importance of taking meds.

EH: Going back to the example of a broken leg, medication is like the cast – it stabilizes you.  But it’s not a cure.  You still have to do the physical therapy to really heal.  Medication gets you started. Past that point, you still have a lot of work to do.

DT:  So is psychotherapy, the emotional equivalent of physical therapy?

EH:  In a way, yes. Antidepressants can help you overcome some of the worst symptoms of depression, and when you begin to feel better, you’re more likely to be open to all of the other aspects of getting and staying well, including participating in individual or group therapy or more informal sharing within your support system. 

On that subject, I think it’s important to note that, although it’s very important to be able to share your feelings and concerns with someone, that tool, like any other, is only effective when used properly.  I think there’s a fine line between being able to talk about your problem, and doing nothing but talk about it.  Moving towards “healthy” means taking an active role and using every available tool, including sharing openly with your support system, but not expecting that or any other tool to do the work for you.

DT:  As a former pro athlete, you obviously know a lot about physical activity. What role does exercise play for you today?

EH: Because of injuries I suffered as a player and post-football problems with chronic pain, it’s hard for me to be as physically active as I’d like to be.  But when I am able to work through the pain and be active, I feel the payoff right away.  Exercise, even moderate exercise, makes both my brain and my body feel better right away. 

DT: What about tracking the progress of your treatment and self-care?  Do you use written tracking tools like those we’ve included in the toolkit?

EH:  To be honest, I don’t use those tools myself, but I can definitely see how they can be beneficial.  For me, keeping track is about keeping it simple. I try and track how I’m doing against my definition of mental health.  When I find myself drifting off, slacking off on the things I need to do to stay well, I ask myself why that’s happening. I first look for any changes – have my medications changed, or have I skipped a dose? Am I eating healthy, staying active, taking time to relax?  I go down the list, trying to be completely honest about each point.  If I can’t identify what’s bothering me on my own, it’s time to talk to someone to get to the bottom of it.

DT:  So you are your own best barometer?

EH:  Not entirely.   My best measurement tool is my family.  When I’m not doing well, they’re not shy about bringing it to my attention.  The analogy I use is watching a scary movie.  If you’re watching alone, you’re going to jump at every noise you hear – or think you hear – in the house.  But if you have a dog with you, he’ll react to what’s really happening.  If there’s danger, his ears will perk up and he’ll bark to let you know to be concerned.  It’s the same way with a good support system. Having supportive people around keeps you aware of how you’re really doing.

DT:  You mentioned that you measure wellbeing against your own definition of mental health.  What is that?

EH:  People use the term “mental health” all the time, but usually in relation to mental illness.  How often do we really define it in positive terms?  Physical health isn’t just the absence of illness, and the same is true for mental health. It’s about being engaged, about being productive, about feeling your own self-worth and being able to have goals and reach for them.  To me, that’s good mental health.  And that’s what I’m always striving for and measuring my progress against.

People commonly confuse mental health with feeling “happy,” but “happy” isn’t the end game.  No one is “happy” all the time.   I think we need to do a better job of educating people about that, and setting realistic expectations and objectives. 

DH: In your public talks, you often mention stress.  Any tips you can share on managing stress, relaxation, etc.?

EH: Short term stress can be a good thing – it helps us perform better, and can alert you to danger and even help save your life. I manage short term stress well, as I think most people do.  Problems occur when stress lasts a long time – when you dwell on things or allow stress to build up, with no relief.   That can have a very negative impact on your thoughts, your emotions and your whole body. 

One of the tools I use to manage stress is to use some positive self-talk to put things into perspective. I remind myself that whatever I’m worried about – whatever the source of the stress is – it’s not life-threatening, and that worrying about it isn’t going to change anything. Another method of managing stress I’ve used is mindfulness training. Mindfulness grounds you in the moment and helps bring the stress level into check.

DT:  It’s interesting to hear how you’ve individualized your own plan, putting together your own “toolkit,” focusing on the tools that work best for you.

EH: I travel around speaking to lots of different audiences, and I always recommend the toolkit website as a great place to start learning about the illness and about the different strategies you can use to feel better.  But one of the lessons I’ve learned is that different strategies work for different people.  The research that led to today’s recommended treatments is based on research with a wide range of people. It’s an effective way to generalize about what works and what doesn’t, but it does so by categorizing people. Keep in mind that each category is made up of individual data points – each one of us is one of those data points.  Treatment is personal, as are each individual’s wellness goals.  Your clinician knows the tools to try, but you’ve got to help him or her to individualize your care.  It’s up to you to help your healthcare provider to really understand the data point that is you.   

DT: You now spend much of your time in outreach – speaking with students, military personnel and other retired pro athletes about depression and its impact on adults and families.  Can you comment on the role outreach or giving back is playing in helping you manage your depression?  

EH: No doubt about it, helping others has helped me.  I’ve found it interesting that everyone has their own unique story, and people commonly feel like they’re the only ones going through it.  I’ve learned that we’re not alone – this is an illness with very specific common symptoms and treatments – no matter where I go, I meet people who tell me that my story is reminiscent of their own.  But that fact that we share much in common doesn’t erase our individual stories. I always remind people that they don’t have to become a public speaker like me. We all need to find a place to can share our story where we know others will “get it.”

DT:  Your outreach extends to current and retired NFL players.  Any particular advice you share with them that we all could benefit from? 

EH: Many of the groups I speak to are high performers – like athletes and members of the military.  At that level, the expectations you put on yourself are extremely high. You tend to think that illness is something that happens to other people, and it can be tough to admit that you need help.  Who among us doesn’t have trouble being told “you need help.” It can feel like an attack, and the tendency is to attack back – “no, I don’t.” Getting over those unrealistic expectations, and gaining perspective on what depression feels like, and how common it is, even among high performers, is an important first step.
To help pro athletes relate, I sometimes compare brain illnesses to the end of a long season. Everything is difficult. You’re usually healthy, but now you are in pain, and it’s even hard to practice.  Depression feels the same way; it’s so hard to get through a day.

DT:  Finally, I’d like to ask you about your “long game.” Depression is a chronic illness, requiring lifetime management.  That thought can be overwhelming. It might help explain why so many people stop taking their meds, or stop therapy, either before they start to improve (thinking “nothing will help me”) or after (thinking “I no longer need help”).  Are you ever tempted to slack off on managing your illness?  What do you do to change your thinking?   

EH: Good question.  When I first started taking medication and began to feel better, I stopped.  Again, I just wasn’t engaged in the process. I thought I had my own set of tools to cope, like alcohol, and that I could get by on my own.  But when I decided that I wanted answers and started to really partner with my doctors, things started to turn around.

When my thoughts start heading in the wrong direction – and it happens to all of us --I try to rededicate myself to remind myself that the work is never over.  It’s not an exact science – because of that, we have to be involved.  There’s no one size fits all – only we can really determine what’s working for us as individuals.

DT: Thanks so much for sharing with us, Eric.

EH: Thank you.

Eric Hipple is an Outreach Coordinator for the University of Michigan Depression Center.



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