In a moment, something that should have felt distant became so deeply personal. On a wet and windy Tuesday night in January, my phone buzzed with a text message from an old friend. “Did you hear about Tyler Hilinski?”
I knew all about Tyler Hilinski. Tyler was the heir apparent quarterback for my favorite college football team, the Washington State Cougars.
Tyler was a 21-year old, handsome, professional, bright and plucky signal-caller in an offense that throws the ball over 50 times a game. Tyler was the quarterback that led the Cougars to an improbable come-from-behind September victory over Boise State, despite being down 31-10 with eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
Notice that in all of these descriptions, I used the phrase, “Tyler was.”
Tyler was with us, with the collective Washington State community, with his teammates, with his friends and family. Tyler was with us until January 16. Tyler Hilinski killed himself.
The story came out in a blurry haze and rather quickly, as most messages do in our society. Tyler had taken his own life, in his apartment in Pullman, Washington. My heart ached in pain for Tyler and his family.
I want to be clear that this was not someone that I knew or had any association with, outside of rooting interest and a kinship that anyone who calls themselves a WSU Cougar might feel. So why did it impact me and so many others in such a powerful way?
Tyler had opportunities and fortune that most could only dream about. He had the full support of his parents. He was a scholarship athlete at a major institution that features one of the best offensive systems in college football. By all accounts, he was cheerful, talented, loving and kind.
But despite all those opportunities and possibilities for Tyler, he was obviously in pain. Knowing what we know now, he likely anguished under the weight of his life responsibilities and circumstances.
And that’s the problem, is that at the time of his sorrow and agony, nobody knew it. Everyone assumed, including me, that this young man, with a bright future, was happy and well.
There were nearly 45,000 deaths by suicide in 2016. It’s the 10th leading cause of death in our country. Among those age 15-24, it’s the third leading cause of death. It’s a miserable fact that we must admit, discuss and work to prevent.
In the days following Tyler’s death, I thought often about others I know who have suffered a similar fate. Due to the rising number of individuals that die by suicide, it is likely that each of us knew a person, or multiple people, who are not with us anymore because of suicide. Each individual experience is unique and represents complex circumstances and challenges.
This is not a generic experience. These are actual people, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers. They have real families and friends, most of which are very aware of the challenges present and are doing everything possible to help and provide support.
There are things that we can all do to help prevent suicide in our sphere of influence. Suicide is often tied to a mental illness, like depression, and we know that the majority of Americans that experience depression do not receive treatment for their illness.
That’s a complex issue in and of itself but certainly there is more that we can do to encourage those around us to be comfortable about mental illness and to encourage proper treatment by medical professionals.
We can break down the stigma of mental illness and encourage proper response to those episodes that so many experience. When someone is having a suicidal thought, we must provide them with the support that they need and there are many resources that provide help.
We can encourage and practice good well-being ourselves. That’s not just physical wellbeing although certainly proper exercise and nutrition play a significant role in our mental health. I feel fortunate to have chosen an occupational path that promotes well-being for our community.
Most importantly perhaps, there are two characteristics that this world needs more of: kindness and empathy.
We can be kind to each other, we can work through differences, we can as Plato requested, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” We can be empathetic to the challenges of life that others might be experiencing. We can truly work, and it indeed is work, to develop an ability to understand and share in the feelings of others.
I miss Tyler Hilinski. I feel great sorrow for the community that came to know him, for his friends and teammates and for his family.
If you know or someone you know is struggling emotionally or having a hard time, please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).