Washington State sophomore and backup quarterback Tyler Hilinksi was found dead in an apartment with a self-inflicted gun shot wound to the head. He was just 21 years old. As family, friends, teammates, coaches, and the school mourn, many are left wondering how could someone who is on a Division 1 college football team, whose school went to the Holiday Bowl, a game in which he started in as quarterback take his own life? This is time for us to have a long overdue conversation on the complex circumstances that lead to this young man’s death and to provide comprehensive and holistic solutions to prevent tragedies like this from occurring.
What we must not overlook, and we often do, is the negative effect that toxic masculinity has on the lives of men and boys. Men and boys are socialized to maintain an image and persona of being “tough”, “strong”, and “resilient”, “aggressive”, “controlling”, and “dominant” at the expense of their psychosocial well being. When we don’t live up to this paradigm we turn on each other and engage in name calling (wuss, wimp, sissy, fag, mama’s boy, etc.) that can lead to dangerous consequences. Tyler Hilinksi grew up in the hyper masculine world of football where the motifs and values are based on the militaristic mentality that puts winning at all cost above everything else. The idea is that being victorious on the field, playing through pain, toughing it out, or taking one for the team is all that matters and whatever pain you might be in, whether physical or emotional is secondary or irrelevant. Jon Voight’s character Coach Bud Kilmer in the 1999 film Varsity Blues summed this up when he said “never show weakness, the only pain that matters is the pain you inflict”. What does that mean? What does that say about what manhood is supposed to be? Are we supposed to neglect our well being and put our energy into destroy someone else’s? What makes matters worse is that there is very little spaces available, particularly on college campuses where men can talk about their problems without judgment and when there are spaces, men are pressured by society to not seek out help. When we don’t seek help and don’t process our emotions in a healthy manner, we engaged in acts of violence towards ourselves, each other, or to women and girls, whom we see as inherently inferior. We need to break the back of the vicious legacy of toxic masculinity and allow for men and boys to live their lives free from trauma and pain and to take on a persona that is based on compassion, empathy, and vulnerability. If our society allowed for men and boys to live their lives authentically and to not conform to rigid stereotypes and expectations, Tyler Hilinski and many others would be alive today.
Furthermore, we live in a nation that socializes men and boys to be unrealistic tough guys and provides easy access, not to counseling/therapy, but to guns. According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, 32,000 Americans are killed every year due to gun violence and 93 people die every day. Since 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, over 1 million people have been killed by guns in the United States. Out of the 93 deaths that die everyday, 58 of those are suicides. Unfortunately, the world of sports and its connection to guns is a deadly one. Former NFL coach turned commentator Tony Dungy said that one year when he was coaching the Indianapolis Colts, they had a training camp that consisted of 80 players before they cut the roster, asked the players how many of them owned guns. Stunningly, about 60 hands went up. To some, this is just young men fulfilling their so called “2nd amendment rights”, but the problem is that athletes and guns historically are a tragic combination. We can go down the list of athletes who have used guns on themselves or on others, Javon Belcher, Rae Curruth, Pacman Jones, Plaxico Burress, Junior Seau, Alexis Arguello, Shane Dorrett, Rick Rypien and it goes on and on. We have problem when we have such a caviler attitude towards the epidemic of gun violence in this country. It seems like one tragedy after another isn’t enough. If our society took gun violence seriously and if there wasn’t such easy access to guns, Tyler Hilinksi and many others would be alive today.
Additionally, we don’t access the counseling and therapy we need because of the vicious stigma on mental health. Mental health problems have significantly increased on college campuses in recent years. The stressors of being away from home, academics, financial aid/tuition, and peer pressure around alcohol, drugs, and sex create the perfect storm for problems surrounding mental health that could potentially lead to suicidal tendencies. According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State University, there has been an increase in students engaging in self-harming behavior over the last five years. They also conducted a study of 139 institutions and found that 33% of students said that they had thoughts of suicide and 26% had intentionally hurt themselves. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that 75% of mental health conditions occur before the age of 24 and if left untreated, further problems can occur once young people get to college. In the case of student athletes, the discourse around mental health is virtually non-existent. The NCAA has a mental health policy and guidelines, but what good is it if college athletic departments, directors, coaches, and the athletes themselves are not engaging themselves in discussions around the importance of mental health or seeking help when needed. According to Daniel Eisenberg, an associate professor at the University Of Michigan School Of Public Health in which he surveyed student athletes before and after they participated in presentations on mental health. He founded that 30% of regular college students sought out help, whereas only 10% of student athletes did so. If that isn’t a troubling statistic, then what is?. Student athletes come to school with similar experiences than non-students, but have additional stressors that compound mental health conditions. They have to perform in the classroom and on the field, again winning at all costs. Colleges and Universities should be safe spaces for young people to thrive and if Washington State and other schools took mental health, particularly the mental health of student athletes seriously, Tyler Hilinksi and many others would be alive today.
Finally, we cannot prevent tragedies like this if we don’t address the epidemic of suicide, particularly on college campuses. Being a college student doesn’t automatically make you more likely to attempt and/or die from suicide, but there seems to be a trend of college students gradually dying from suicide. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 15-24. The CDC also stated that suicide is the second leading cause of death for college aged students specifically. There are more than 1,000 suicides on college campuses every year, 2-3 a day. More than half of college students have had suicidal thoughts and 1 in 10 students have seriously considered taking their lives. What is even more staggering is that 80-90% of students who died from suicide never received assistance from the counseling centers on campus. Clearly there is an epidemic going on, and for the student-athletes the numbers are just as bad. According to the scholarly journal Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, over a nine year period, 35 suicides occurred by student athletes, 477 athletes died from all causes and suicide represented 7.3% of those deaths and 29 out of those 35 suicides were male athletes. Football represented the highest number of suicides in terms of sport with 13 out of those 35. Numbers aside, the fact that suicide happens at all to student athletes and non-student athletes should be a call to action. If we created an environment where students can feel good about themselves, find support, and seek out the help they need, yes, Tyler Hilinksi and many others would be alive today.
So where do we go from here. There is no silver lining to prevent tragedies like this from happening again. It is going to take a comprehensive, innovative, and holistic effort. For us social workers who work with athletes, we are in a unique position to advocate for and implement policies that affect change on a macro, mezzo, and micro level. There are many things we can do. Here are some suggestions:
(1) Increase access to mental health services both on and off campus
(2) Establish and implement educational programs that focus on mental health and suicide prevention and break the stigma of mental health
(3) Hosted community forums and discussions on and off campus
(4) Implement mental health screening tools for student athletes during pre-season physicals
(5) Implement the Access Childhood Experience (ACE) screening for student athletes during pre-season physicals
(6) Have programs and discussions in place that are geared towards redefining masculinity/manhood (e.g. Duke’s Men’s Project)
(7) Ensure that the Counseling Center has social workers, psychologists, and therapists that are experts in working with athletes and have them work closely with the athletic department
(8) Advocate for sensible gun control laws
(9) Advocate against concealed carry laws on college campuses
(10) Organize events/activities across campus for mental health and suicide prevention awareness
All of these are common sense approaches. Some already exist and some we already know need to be done. This is not a skill problem, it is a will problem, and do we have the will? Tyler Hilinksi’s life was not in vain and we need to do whatever it takes so that one younger person’s life is not taken away prematurely.
If you are feeling suicidal or know someone who is feeling suicidal, please reach out to any local crisis centers/agencies, contact your counseling center on campus, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8235.
You are not alone.