Former Detroit Lions quarterback Eric Hipple tells a crowd inside the Beaumont Hospital auditorium May 18 that everyone has a story, but what defines us is what we do about it.
ROYAL OAK — When former Detroit Lions quarterback Eric Hipple tried to kill himself during a car ride with his wife along Interstate 75, that wasn’t his wake-up call.
“I grabbed a piece of paper and I wrote, ‘I’m sorry, I love you,’” he said. “I handed it to her, she kind of looked at it, she looked at me, and I opened the door and I jumped out of the car. I hit the pavement going about 70 miles per hour.”
It wasn’t until years later after suffering through the tragic loss of his 15-year-old son to suicide and hearing fellow inmates’ stories while in Oakland County jail for drinking and driving that he faced the reality and acknowledged the stigma associated with mental illness, including depression.
“I want answers,” he said he thought to himself while locked up. “I want to know what is going on.”
Hipple shared his story May 18 with an audience that filled the Beaumont Health auditorium at the Royal Oak hospital campus.
His speech was a part of the 2016 Mental Health Fair presented by Beaumont Health and Easter Seals Michigan. Hipple’s appearance was made possible by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Southeast Michigan Chapter.
Author of “Real Men Do Cry,” Hipple shared his life story, including growing up with undiagnosed depression that manifested during the stresses of adult life: transitioning out of football, alcohol use, divorce, jail and the loss of his son.
Hipple said the more he learned and identified with mental illness, the more his emotions started coming out.
“Then I got angry,” he said. “Why aren’t we talking about this stuff?”
Hipple now dedicates his life to raising awareness of mental illness. The former NFL division champion said mental illness is often swept under the rug, especially with men.
“What we don’t know can hurt us,” he said.
Hipple said early recognition is key and there are more effective treatments now.
“Our stories, they shape us, they do; we all have our stories and they shape us, but they don’t define us,” he said. “What defines us is what we do about it.”
In addition to Hipple’s presentation, service organizations filled the front atrium of Beaumont Hospital’s south tower to provide information to attendees of the fair.
Jeff Edwards, chairman of the Metro Detroit/Ann Arbor chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, lost his 12-year-old son, Chase, to suicide and began making it his life ambition to spread the word about recognizing the signs and providing relief to survivors.
Edwards is behind state legislation, the Chase Edwards Youth Depression and Suicide Education Law, which encourages schools to address suicide prevention.
Edwards said he also likes to maintain a presence at any type of mental health fair.
“Given the fact that Eric had a powerful presentation ... we were in support of that, and we also like to be in venues where we can raise the collective profile and dispel ignorance as it relates to mental illness, depression, suicide, but also offer people opportunities for finding hope,” he said.
Edwards said 1 in 4 people in their lifetimes will experience mental illness.
“We all have this in common, but no one talks about it given all the stigma that’s associated with it,” he said. “So the more you have opportunities to talk about it, the more you have an opportunity to potentially save someone’s life, and if one person’s life is saved today because of this, then that makes it well worth it.”
Other organizations at the fair included HAVEN, Rose Hill Center, National Alliance of Mental Illness, Common Ground and Easter Seals.
Elizabeth Malarney, of Easter Seals, said the organization is a large mental health provider in Oakland County that offers many services for all ages — from babies through the senior population — including psychiatric services, case management and therapy.
Malarney said she was glad Easter Seals participated in the fair this year.
“It’s been really great,” she said. “We’ve been able to talk with people who have specific questions about their kids or their family members, and if we can’t help them, we have been able to guide them to someone who could.”
Information available at the mental health fair was provided on many other topics including autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, skill-building for those with developmental disabilities, and early intervention for childhood traumas.
Hipple said he also wants anyone dealing with mental illness to know they are not alone.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” he said. “It’s a sign of strength, not of weakness.”
May is recognized nationally as Mental Health Awareness Month.