Program supporting student athletes' mental health aims to expand beyond Skyline High School

In May 2017, Kristen and Jeffrey Roberts were shaken when their son Miles died by suicide at age 15. Now they're working to support the mental health of student athletes like Miles at Ann Arbor's Skyline High School.
This article is part of a series about mental health in Washtenaw County. It is made possible with funding from Washtenaw County's Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage.

In May 2017, Kristen and Jeffrey Roberts were shaken when their son Miles died by suicide at age 15. The Robertses have moved forward in their grief by working to reduce the stigma associated with mental health – most recently by organizing a new program to offer mental health "champions" for student athletes like Miles at Ann Arbor's Skyline High School.
courtesy Kristen and Jeffrey RobertsMiles Roberts.
After Miles' death, the Robertses set up a fund in his name at the University of Michigan Depression Center, allowing them to start the Miles Jeffrey Roberts Foundation (MJRF) in 2019. The nonprofit has supported pre-existing peer-to-peer mentoring programs in middle and high schools throughout the Ann Arbor area, but the Robertses wanted to do more for student athletes in particular, given Miles’ time as part of the Skyline varsity hockey team. 

That led to the creation of the MJRF Mental Health Champions program in 2022. The MJRF website calls the program "a transformative approach for engaging youth athletes through trusted adults, specifically coaches, trainers and other professionals within the athletic department" at Skyline, and aims to help students recognize when they are in need of additional mental or emotional support. The Washtenaw County Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage has committed $15,000 per year for three years, totaling $45,000 through 2026, to pilot the project as a collaboration between MJRF, Skyline High School, and the U-M Depression Center. 

Kristen Roberts says she's learned that a youth who dies by suicide is often someone "that’s really dynamic and energetic, that puts on a persona out in public, and looks different in the household, and that was very true to Miles." 

"Seeing that that’s almost a commonality, almost a suicide warning sign, can help others to see when someone is in crisis," she says.

As of 2024, according to Roberts, the Champions program has conducted 17 mental health presentations to 412 student athletes, with 12 of those students reaching out to the Champions team to be connected with other mental health resources outside of the school.

The Champions team is currently made up of clinical therapist and Skyline Men’s and Women’s Golf Coach Melissa Schmidt, Skyline High School Psychologist and Field Hockey Coach Andy Nalepa, and U-M Depression Center Outreach and Education Coordinator Will Heininger. The three work with over 200 student athletes and over 15 coaches, providing support and mental health resources to ensure that all students feel comfortable enough to engage in open conversations about their mental health when they’re struggling. All three champions have backgrounds in athletics, and see how the added pressure of athletic success can be both encouraging and challenging for students.
Doug CoombeSkyline High School Psychologist and Field Hockey Coach Andy Nalepa.
"Being a part of the support team for our students, families, and staff when Miles passed away felt like a calling to be a part of this project," Nalepa says. "Any time we can interface with students and provide resources to support them, I am on board with it."

"From a coach’s perspective, these are high-achieving students with jobs. They’re in AP classes. They have to hold things together, and they aren’t always given the light to look at their needs in the same way as students who struggle in other ways," Schmidt says. "Deep down, they’re still adolescents who are trying to grow as people, and we want to give them the tools and words to ask for help."

Heininger adds that a large part of the Champions' work is sharing their personal struggles with students and coaches to break through the stigma that often surrounds opening up about mental health. In presentations and conversations through the program, Heininger often shares his personal story about his battle with major depression and anxiety as a U-M student and football player. He says his personal challenges with mental health ultimately fueled his desire to help high school student athletes better understand their own mental health.
Doug CoombeU-M Depression Center Outreach and Education Coordinator Will Heininger.
"Teaching the first generation of students about mental health proactively is a passion of mine," Heininger says. "The more I got to know the Robertses, I saw a lot of similarities between me and Miles, and I realized there’s so much work left to do to weave a support net so students don’t slip through."

All three Champions, as well as Kristen Roberts, say the response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive, with some students even going out of their way to start their own mental health initiatives in Miles’ name. Skyline student Jude Carlson started a fundraiser called Mullets for Miles, which raised over $50,000 for the Champions program.

"To create this, the students have to believe in it and help us understand how we can drive the programming to meet their needs," Roberts says. "It’s not just me, as an adult who lost a child, that’s trying to do something we think is the right thing – and we’re seeing more and more students get involved in helping to drive this forward."

Given their collective backgrounds working with students and student athletes, the Champions also understand how difficult it can be for students to open up to adults about their struggles, and the challenges they can face when they do seek out additional help and resources. Transportation, insurance, stigma, and other factors can contribute to anyone not receiving mental health aid when they need it, and those issues are just as present in high school students as they are in adults. The Champions want to ensure that every student has at least one trusted adult they can reach out to when they’re struggling. 
Doug CoombeSkyline Men’s and Women’s Golf Coach Melissa Schmidt.
"You become a safe space for a lot of people when you do this work, and sometimes people will just give you their story when they might not feel comfortable sharing it with other people," Schmidt says. "It shows how intelligent these students can be when they’re really engaged and committed."

While the Champions program is currently in a three-year pilot phase, Roberts says MJRF is working closely with new funders to place Champions in other Washtenaw County schools. That expansion will begin with Champions programming at Ann Arbor's Pioneer High School this fall. 

"It’s so hard feeling like you failed as a parent. Fortunately we have four children and knew a lot of other people who swooped in and said, 'This could’ve been my kid,'" says Roberts. "The ripple effect and getting a sense of that ... gives you a lot of things to think about on how you can try to do better for others."

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.