On Tyler Hilinski

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The death of Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski Tuesday is a tragedy beyond comprehension for those not afflicted with the factors that lead to suicide.

Depression and other mental health issues are medical concerns. In the same way that a sufferer of shingles cannot make you actually feel the same sensation if you have never experienced it, someone struggling with depression cannot channel the feeling to another who has not been through himself or herself.

Nevertheless, for the nearly 45,000 Americans who die by suicide each year, there are untold millions left behind connected to those deaths. Most of them anguish over what they could have done, or how life might be different if that person hadn’t died. It’s especially hard on family members.

I’ve often heard in my time covering college football players refer to their teams as families. Consider the context, and it really is much more than rhetoric: Programs are made up of young men, typically ages 18 to 23, almost all of whom are living away from home for the first time.

They spend hours upon hours together every day in the weight room, the locker room, at study table, traveling…Realistically, college football teammates spend more time together than my own wife and I spend together.

Consult the social media response from Tyler Hilinski’s Washington State teammates, and it’s evident that his fellow Cougars held a brotherly affection for the quarterback.

Adoptive brothers in Pullman and a biological family elsewhere have had their lives fundamentally changed. I think of Tyler Hilinski’s younger brother, Ryan, specifically. While I’ve never interviewed him, certainly don’t know him in any way, I still want desperately to hug him.

My older brother, Scott, died of suicide four days after my 13th birthday and three weeks before Christmas. Only recently — two decades later, and after speaking with a psychiatric professional in an effort to be more aware for my own son — have I started to understand the impact it had on me.

For the longest time, I blew off help in an attempt to remove myself from the stigma of suicide, which I realize now only deepened the negative effect. Our society’s understanding of suicide has made considerable progress since then; we are collectively beginning to understand that mental health struggles differ very little from physical ailments.

Still, there’s progress to be made. Hilinski’s former Cougar teammate, Gabe Marks, offered suggestions specific to college football.

I want to get into a time machine and tell the 13-year-old me, or Hilinski’s younger brother and teammates today, not to distance yourself from the loss. Be hurt and be angry. Embrace those around you, let them know it isn’t awkward to talk about your loss — encourage it, even.

Celebrate their life.