Former Detroit Lions quarterback Eric Hipple’s been through hell and back as he shares his story of depression, his son’s death by suicide, his own recovery and his current role as advocate and champion for mental health and wellness.
He’s given thousands of speeches across the country before veterans, students, businesses and organizations. He’s much in demand as he talks up the importance of people focusing on their mental health as they do their physical health.
As we take note of Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s a message needed more than ever as this pandemic has put increasing pressure on everyone’s health.
>>For help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255
Hipple’s also assisting Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan with a new mental health program geared to its employees and customers, and he’s working with the National Football League’s alumni efforts in mental health and awareness for former players.
Mental illness was a critical issue before the pandemic as 4 out of 5 people then said they experienced depression or other behavioral issues the previous year, National Alliance on Mental Illness statistics show. The organization also reports this health care crisis is costing employers nearly $200 billion each year due to lost productivity as people miss work taking care of themselves or loved ones.
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Others are also discussing the importance of mental wellness, including U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, actress Glenn Close (who worked with Stabenow to secure more federal funding for community mental health programs across the nation), National Alliance of Mental Illness – Michigan Chapter Executive Director Kevin Fischer, and Duchess Meghan Markle, who recently talked with Oprah Winfrey about her depression and thoughts of suicide in an interview that gained worldwide attention and put a focus on mental health.
A football star kept his pain secret
Everyone is impacted in some way by mental illness, but few are as open about sharing their life-changing story as Hipple.
In a sport known for toughness, Hipple, now 63, was one of the baddest: a quarterback quick on his feet who had an ability to take a huge hit but keep on going. But what happened on April 9, 2000, stopped him dead in his tracks.
Jeff Hipple, his 15-year-old son, was at their Fenton home babysitting his 7-year-old sister, Tarah, as his stepmom ran errands. Hipple was in California on business.
“He went into the bedroom and used a shotgun to kill himself,” Hipple told me as we talked this week. “His sister was in the next room watching TV when it happened.”
What came next was a flurry of moments, memories and realizations about the importance and impact of ignoring mental health needs. Hipple admitted he knew little about it until then.
As Hipple reflected on his own life and mental health, he told me he had “moments” growing up when he wasn’t feeling right. But being the tough kid who excelled in sports, Hipple kept it to himself and never told anyone, not even his parents.
In college, it got so bad he couldn’t get out of bed for almost a term and didn’t know why. He knew he had to pull it together to keep his football scholarship, and rebounded.
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During his storied NFL career, he had occasional moments. But the glare of the spotlight and alcohol he was abusing kept them at bay. It wasn’t until he retired, that those symptoms came rushing back with a vengeance.
He fought his way through each episode that came up through the years.
It became a crisis in 1998, two years before Jeff’s death.
“I was despondent, I didn’t want to live anymore,” Hipple told me. His wife was driving him to the airport for a business trip. “I scribbled a note to her, saying goodbye,” and then he jumped out of the moving car along I-275.
He was hospitalized with serious but not life-threatening injuries. The incident gained coverage as Hipple, then working in the insurance industry, was a celebrity. The story they told folks was the door opened on its own. They never told anyone what really happened as he swept his growing mental health woes under the rug.
Jeff, meanwhile, was adjusting as Hipple and his mom divorced. Then 15, he had been spending time going back and forth between the West Coast where his mom lived and Fenton. It wasn’t until after his death, they learned how tough a time Jeff was having.
“After Jeff’s death, I knew I needed to get help, to finally deal with it,” Hipple said. “I also didn’t want to lose anyone else.”
It wasn’t easy but Hipple got help and slowly put the pieces of his life and the family’s life back together. Along the way, he grew in his understanding of mental illness so much so, he began working for the University of Michigan’s Depression Center and other places and began giving motivational speeches.
Though just a child at the time of her brother’s death, Tarah Hipple had lingering issues. She began having similar problems as she approached her 15th birthday — the same age as Jeff when he died. “She was cutting herself, was depressed and anxious all the time,” Hipple told me.
Seeing the symptoms, he got her immediate help.
“I didn’t understand what was going on with Jeff,” Hipple said. “But I learned, and thank God we were able to get Tarah help before it was too late.”
Today, Tarah’s happily married with a master’s degree in social work and is working as a therapist with patients dealing with trauma.
Coming full circle, Hipple spoke last Tuesday to students at Linden High School about the importance of paying attention to one’s mental health and wellness (it was an in-person, socially distanced event). It was bittersweet as it was the same school Jeff had attended.
“I told them the same thing I tell other people when I speak,” he said of his speech. “Life is a journey that’s worth living. So keep moving forward. Even when things get tough and aren’t going your way, realize it’s only a moment; don’t let it define you. There is joy in every moment, even during the bad times.”
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan President and CEO Daniel Loepp told me the company is working with Hipple as he’s been one of the most ardent champions for mental wellness.
“Partnering with a well-known athlete like Eric Hipple — who has a profound story and a longtime commitment as a mental health advocate — is another way we are helping raise awareness about the importance of mental health and addressing stigma that stops many people from getting the care they need to live their best lives.”
Loepp mentioned the profound impact the past year has had on mental health.
“Anxiety and depression is rising as the pandemic and social injustices have brought grief, stress, worry and isolation. The need for better awareness of mental health issues is clear; these are serious conditions that can also impact physical health,” Loepp said.
Mental health for the people
Stabenow was a student at Michigan State University sitting in a psychology class when she heard about mental illness — specifically bipolar disorder and how lithium was being used to treat it. The information hit like a lightning bolt.
“My dad had been having these issues for years and the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong,” she told me. She took that information home and he got help as his life was transformed. This was decades ago when less was known about mental illness and people certainly didn’t talk about it.
The encounter had a profound impact as Stabenow’s been a champion for health care and mental health — first in Lansing and now in Washington. She and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri co-authored the Excellence in Mental Health and Addiction Treatment Act in 2014, which is improving access to mental health services through community treatment centers.
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Stabenow, new chair of the U.S. Senate Finance Health subcommittee, will hold her first hearing on improving mental health and addiction services on Wednesday.
For her collective efforts, Stabenow received the Bryce Harlow Award last month. The award honors an elected official whose career is built on integrity, dedication and professionalism. Her work in health care was cited and the new behavioral health program she championed has resulted in $112 million in community services for Michigan. GM CEO Mary Barra and Dow CEO Jim Fitterling were among those who paid tribute to her in videos announcing the award.
“We need to tell people it’s OK to ask for help,” Stabenow told me. “Issues involving the brain are just as important as other illnesses like cancer or diabetes. We have come a long way, but we need to do more.“
A personal crusade
Kevin Fischer runs NAMI-Michigan and admits he didn’t know much about mental illness until 2010 after his son, Dominique, died by suicide.
A star athlete at Detroit Catholic Central High School, Dominique headed off to college to play football. He began having issues and, during his sophomore year, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He took his life three years later.
Fischer’s life went into a tailspin as he experienced depression and entertained notions of suicide. He got through it with lots of help and learned a tremendous amount about mental illness. Though too late to help his son, Fischer’s on a crusade to end the stigma and help those who need it.
He was hired as head of NAMI’s statewide chapter in 2014, which he describes as, “the entry point for most people to learn what help is out there.”
“We really are ignorant as a society when it comes to mental health, diagnoses and what tools are available to help,” he said.
He serves on the Governor’s Suicide Prevention Commission, which is part of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. MDHHS released a report last month making recommendations about how to reduce the state’s suicide rate. Currently someone dies by suicide in Michigan every six hours, that report mentioned.
“In Michigan, anyone who needs help should be able to get it,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said when the report was released. “We must work together to reduce suicide rates in Michigan and make sure that everyone knows that it’s OK to not be OK and help is always here.”
Removing the stigma and barriers to getting help is part of the solution, which is why Fischer and his wife, Sonya, created the Dominique Fischer Memorial Foundation in 2010. Sonya Fischer started a T-shirt printing company, A-to-Z Custom Tees, and created a new shirt to spread the message of hope and awareness.
“EVERYBODY-VS-STIGMA ” is printed on front as folks like Stabenow are popping up on social media wearing it. The Fischers also created a new website with other items.
“We wanted to create it to let people know they aren’t alone,” Kevin Fischer said.
They are selling the items with all profits going to the Dominique Fischer Memorial Fund, Catholic Central High School and NAMI, to fund awareness programs.
“We need to do more to help people realize diseases above the neck are just as important as those below,” he said. “If you saw someone having a heart attack or cancer, you’d do what you could to help. It’s the same thing with mental illness. There is help.”
- Contact Eric Hipple at EricHippleSpeaks.com
- NAIMI-Michigan: https://namimi.org/
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 800-273-8255 or 800-273-TALK. Anyone under age 21 can ask to talk to a peer at Teen Link, 866-833-6546.
- TTY users can use their preferred relay services or dial 711 then 800-273-8255.
Contact Carol Cain: 313-222-6732 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She is senior producer/host of “Michigan Matters,” which airs 7:30 a.m. Sundays on CBS 62. See Eric Hipple, Kevin Fischer and BCBSM’s Dr. Amy Kenzie on this Sunday’s show.